Just hours after breaking through its eggshell and into existence, a tiny newborn lizard makes a frantic dash for the nearest tree. Although its mother spent a decent portion of the past eight months protecting her two dozen incubating eggs, she sees her offspring as an easy meal, not as a beloved baby. Hungry fathers share this sentiment and will not hesitate to feast on their own young if the opportunity presents itself. Rendered utterly helpless in a world without allies, few hatchlings survive their first year, let alone their first month. Only the lucky ones will avoid a cannibalistic or otherwise tragic fate, if they are able to successfully scamper across the hot Indonesian grasslands and up into the shelter of a nearby tree.
For the next four years, these small reptilian critters will fend for themselves high above terra firma, feeding on bird eggs, insects, and small geckos that also occupy the tree branches. Over this time, a stunning transformation occurs, as these completely vulnerable creatures that measured no longer than 37 centimeters (just over one foot) become behemoth beasts - the world's closest existing equivalent to the legendary dragons of folklore and fairy tales. When an individual ultimately descends from the canopy of forest leaves, measuring an average of 2.8 meters long (9 feet), it commands tremendous respect and fear from every unfortunate animal that crosses its path.
While Varanus komodoensis only lives on four small Indonesian islands, it has captivated animal enthusiasts across the world - perhaps because of the terrifying, mythical images its common name conjures. And even though the Komodo Dragon does not possess the power to fly or breathe fire to roast its next meal, the world's largest lizard wields some incredible abilities of its own.
Scouring the hot, dry savanna surface for its next meal, the clay-colored carnivore uses its yellow forked tongue to detect odors from more than one mile away. This superior sense proves invaluable to feeding, since adults rarely hunt live prey. Despite their menacing name, Komodo Dragons thrive more as scavengers than predators. Over the course of a 25-year lifespan, adults will exhaust up to five sets of 60 serrated, inch-long teeth to tear into the carrion of wild pigs, deer, buffalo, snakes, and fish. Thoroughly devouring dead flesh proves doubly effective, both satisfying the dragon's diet and clearing rotting carcasses from the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang.
On the less often occasions that the clay-colored carnivore seeks live meat, it displays an awesome arsenal of assassin's skills. Camouflaged among the grasslands, the Komodo Dragon will strike unsuspecting prey suddenly. If a chase does ensue, the stubby-legged beast is unexpectedly adept at running. Capable of bursting in spurts at more than 32 kilometers per hours (20 miles per hour), it is nearly the fastest reptile on the planet.
Lacking a strong enough bite to subdue their victims, Komodo Dragons employ powerful venomous proteins stored in venom glands inside the lower jaw. Once injected, the poisons can prevent the prey's blood from clotting around the wound, induce hypothermia and muscle paralysis, and lower blood pressure - all leading to certain death and an easy meal. The discovery of these toxic capabilities represents a recent revelation, and brings to question the traditional theory that Komodo Dragons solely rely on any number of nearly 60 different highly deadly strains of bacteria (including Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus) thriving in their saliva to effectively kill. While scientists continue to study these toxins in order to reveal their precise purposes, no one can refute their devastating effects.
After consuming a meal - sometimes up to 80% of its own body weight in one sitting - the Komodo Dragon resumes its favorite activity: basking. Lazy and solitary, this scaly island ectotherm spends the vast majority of its day regulating its cold-blooded body temperature - laying out in the sun during the cooler parts of daylight, relaxing in the shade during the hottest hours, and retreating into burrows for the evening.
Despite their solitary tendencies, Komodo Dragons naturally must come together during summertime mating season. Males fight for mates in sometimes bloody battles, displaying their prowess by combating competitors in an upright position and wrestling them to the ground. Even victory does not guarantee success, however, as the female spectator still must reciprocate intimate interest by excreting a sexual scent. After fornication, females lay their eggs during September in the abandoned nests of megapodes, a family of turkey-like birds that inhabit the southwest Pacific region. Digging nests in the grassland grounds, mothers lay between 15 and 30 eggs in a clutch and incubate them for up to nine months.
Amazingly, female Komodo Dragons are capable of immaculate conception, scientifically known as parthenogenesis. The extent to which females display this trait remains unknown, but given the state of the species population, conservationists must hope that instances of parthenogenesis increase. Over the past fifty years, the Komodo Dragon's numbers have plummeted to a mere 5,000 individuals surviving in the wild. Of these remaining individuals, scientists estimate four times as many males as females, which leaves no more than a few hundred breeding females.
Although the animal is protected under Indonesian law, human expansion and natural disasters continue to destroy much of its natural habitat. Volcanoes and earthquakes are impossible to avoid, but the foundation of Komodo National Park in 1980 has helped stabilize the populations on Komodo and Rinca, which includes approximately 2,000 individuals.
Captive specimens, although widely popular at zoos across the world, have not played any significant role in restoring their species' declining numbers; adults caught in the wild are particularly susceptible to disease and infection and rarely survive more than a few years in their new environment. Nevertheless, with increased awareness and conservation efforts, it remains hopeful that this creature of modern mythical proportions will not follow the dinosaurs into reptilian mythical lore.
The Komodo Dragon is moving through the widespread savannah environment, which covers 75% of the land in Komodo National Park. These areas of the park are characterized by extensive grasslands and scattered clusters of two types of fan palms, the tall Buri or Gebang palm (Corypha utan) and the similar looking, but slightly smaller, Lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer).
Komodo Monitor, Buaya Darat (translated as "land crocodile" from the language of Komodo's native inhabitants)
2-3 meters (6.6-9.8 feet)
70 kilograms (150 pounds)
25 years in wild
Dry, hot grasslands and forested regions on four small Indonesian islands: Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang
Wild pigs, deer, buffalo, snakes, and fish - both as carrion and live prey
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The spiny-tailed iguana, a small distant cousin from Costa Rica, narrowly wins the honor of world's fastest reptile, edging out the Komodo Dragon at just over 33 kilometers per hour (21 miles per hour).
The Komodo Dragon's original ancestors roamed the Earth more than 100 million years ago - during the age of dinosaurs.
Many indigenous Indonesians on the island of Komodo believe the creatures are reincarnations of their kinsmen.
The Komodo Dragon achieved its tremendous size through an evolutionary process called "island gigantism." When sea levels rose around the small Indonesian islands nearly ten million years ago, the lizards were stranded - incapable of migrating but fortuitously isolated from predators, allowing the species to grow to massive proportions.
Under certain circumstances, Komodo Dragons have been known to swim between islands.