By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Komodo dragons, the world’s largest living lizards, face extinction. Rising sea levels and urbanization are contributing to the decline of the Indonesian-area species. What are they and where did they come from?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) monitors a so-called “Red List” of 138,000 species of threatened animals. A fearsome predator recently joined its ranks as the Komodo dragon’s numbers and habitat continue to shrink. The IUCN has warned that 30% of the dragons’ habitat will be gone in half a century.
Among other things, the Komodo dragon is known for its ferocious eating habits. It hunts everything from invertebrates to mammals and everything in between. In his video series Introduction to Paleontology, Dr. Stuart Sutherland, Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia, explained what makes them so special.
Introduction to Komodo Dragons
According to Dr. Sutherland, the species name for Komodo dragons is komodoensis, meaning Komodo Island, where they live. It is paired with the generic term Varanus, from the Arabic word “waral,” meaning “dragon” or “lizard beast,” which all monitor lizards share. Together, they make Varanus komodoensis, or Monitor Lizard from Komodo.
And they are big.
“An average male is around 2.5 meters long, and about 91 kilograms,” he said. That’s over eight feet long, weighing 200 pounds or so. “The largest specimen was about 3.13 meters long and weighed 166 kilograms—that’s 365 pounds, although this may have included some undigested food from a recent meal. It is estimated they have a lifespan of about 30 years.”
Their muscular tails are as long as their crocodile-like bodies. Dr. Sutherland said that they’re built like tanks with armored skin, their osteoderm bone plates forming a kind of chain mail. Their builds make it impossible for them to run down their prey, like wolves do. Instead, they are ambush predators, lunging at their quarry in a surprise attack with a strong bite. So what do they eat?
“The dragons will hunt almost anything—invertebrates, eggs, lizards, and mammals, including monkeys, goats, water buffalo, and other items,” Dr. Sutherland said. “Despite their position as top predator of these islands, they will quite happily eat carrion.
“Islanders will often place piles of rocks on graves, not to mark the position of a loved one, but as a very practical solution to stop Komodo dragons from digging up granny’s grave for a quick snack.”
Komodo dragons live on five Indonesian islands: Gili Motang, Gili Dasami, Rinca, Komodo, and Flores. However, recent studies suggest a separate—and surprising—place of origin for them: Australia. Komodo dragons are part of an ancient megafauna, like a Southern Hemisphere mastodon or woolly mammoth. Different megafauna developed in the Southern Hemisphere.
“By 50 million years ago, Australia had separated from other landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere but was still close enough to allow migration of creatures from South America across an ice-free Antarctica and into a northward drifting Australia,” Dr. Sutherland said. “As time progressed and as the ocean widened, Australia became isolated, and all these creatures were marooned, and evolution in isolation can do some pretty amazing things.”
Another species of reptilian megafauna, the Megalania, once roamed Australia, estimated to measure up to seven meters. Evidence exists of this monster coexisting with Komodo dragons, implying that the Komodo dragons are the last of a long lineage of giant monitor lizards.
“By 2,000 years ago, the last remaining member of this group of monster lizards had retracted to Flores and the small surrounding islands like Komodo,” Dr. Sutherland said.