Halfway across the Earth, nestled deep within the Indonesian archipelago, lie two small, tropical islands unlike any others on the planet. From the United States, it takes at least three planes, a boat, and a couple of days to get there. By the time you dock at the main pier on one of these islands, you realize that you’ve stepped foot into an entirely different world. There is no technology – no cell service, no internet, no cars; not even paved roads. It’s just you, a guide, and the wilderness around you.
My fellow ISC Blog Editor-in-Chief Dana and I arrived at Rinca Island on a wooden boat after a flight from Bali to Flores, the closest major island. Stepping off the boat onto the natural beach, we could immediately feel like there was more to the island than we could see. We were hundreds of miles from modern luxury, where the only site before us was a rugged landscape and the gentle sounds of nature. In the back of our minds, we knew why were there: to see the largest lizard on the planet, the Komodo dragon.
We had seen these great lizards on a BBC special, and despite the effort it took to reach these islands, we were thrilled that we might see the Komodo dragon up close. While we navigated Rinca island first, the second island we visited was where these dragons got their name: Komodo Island. These two islands are the only place on Earth these dragons can be found in their natural habitat.
Walking towards the middle of Rinca island, we saw long-tailed macaques resting in the low-hanging trees and crabs burrowed in the mud, poking their heads out sporadically like in a game of whack-a-mole. But we weren’t there to see the monkeys and crabs. The true prize lay in waiting for us deeper in the lush forest ahead. It was very quiet and calm, but we knew we were encroaching on the dragons’ home turf.
Rinca and Komodo islands are part of Komodo National Park, and the park service requires that a park guide accompanies every tourist. Our guide, an Indonesian man who spoke no English, wore a wide-brimmed hat and matching olive-green uniform and carried a long, wooden stick. He led us across an open field toward a shelter. As we approached, he suddenly stopped us all, pointed, and said something to our guide, Ari, in a local language we didn’t understand.
“A dragon,” Ari translated with restrained excitement. The park guide showed us where to walk so we could get a close look at the magnificent beast. He said we could get within 10 feet or so, only because the dragon had recently eaten. He could tell by its girth. If a dragon eats a big meal, such as a water buffalo or a deer, it won’t eat again for a month, and it also won’t be interested in people.
The dragon was at least eight feet long from nose to tail. It had scars on its sides, likely from a previous confrontation with a competing dragon. It sat in silence, slowly digesting its recent catch.
Walking across the island, we came across several dragons – some traipsing across the forest, sweeping their heads from side to side like a salamander, sniffing around for their next meal with their long, thin, deeply-forked tongues. They aren’t very flexible, so they don’t move very easily over rugged terrain. We realized this when we saw them walking down the paths that were built for their human guests. But don’t let their apparent clumsiness fool you: In open terrain, they could outrun you at about 12 miles per hour. They can swim, too.
We were able to approach several dragons up close with the help of our guide. We walked around them and observed, like how guests view sculptures at art museums, in awe of their immense size and their dinosaur-like presence. We could see the dragons’ skin, covered in bony scales called osteoderms. These structures are very hard, making it easier for dragons, crocodiles, some frogs, and other animals to withstand scratches and bites. In crocodiles, osteoderms contain a lot of blood vessels that help them maintain their body temperature while they’re submerged underwater for long periods of time. But in Komodo dragons, these structures serve a different function: they act as a form of armor, like chain-mail, which protects them from other dragons during the fight for mating partners.
Komodo dragons are armed with huge, curved claws that are reminiscent of the velociraptors’ claws in Jurassic Park, and they can cause serious damage not only to prey, but also to each other. Additionally, on some dragons, we saw long beads of sticky saliva hanging down from either side of their mouths. We saw their long, muscular tails that look like they could seriously hurt you. While several dragons stood still as we observed, giving us a sense of security in their presence, we had to remember that these were living beings, and if one turned its head and started undulating its forked tongue, we had to back off quickly.
Similar to how a dog uses its nose to sniff for food, the Komodo dragon uses its tongue to smell flesh from miles away.
Komodo dragons aren’t the largest animals on Komodo and Rinca Islands (they weigh about as much as the average person), but they are no doubt at the top of the food chain. They eat macaques, deer, various small animals, and water buffalo, which range in weight from 600 to 1,200 pounds. And if they’re hungry enough or feel threatened, they’ll eat humans, too. We heard the stories.
The Komodo dragon not only relies on its speed to catch prey – it’s method of reducing the massive water buffalo to a meal is cruel, grisly, and violent.
The Komodo dragon is built to kill and consume large animals. Its mouth houses about 60 curved, inch-long, serrated teeth that get replaced throughout the dragon’s lifetime. These teeth are specialized to the dragon – they create deep wounds that allow it to deliver a deadly venom that the dragon secretes from a gland in its mouth. The venom is similar to that of the gila monster (a lizard found in the Sonoran desert) and some snakes, in that it rapidly decreases the prey’s blood pressure by dilating its blood vessels. The venom also contains compounds that prolong bleeding, which causes prey to bleed profusely, further reducing its blood pressure. Ultimately, the prey submits to shock and dies. Unfortunately, scientists don’t know much about the chemical composition of a Komodo dragon’s saliva, so we don’t really know how it works.
Nevertheless, once the victim dies, the dragon really gets to work. The Komodo dragon evolved to produce the most damage with minimal effort: it has a hinge in its lower jaw that we don’t have, which allows it to open its mouth extra-wide to accommodate large prey. Its teeth are arranged such that as the dragon bites into its prey, each tooth makes a deeper incision than the last. The teeth help the dragon clamp on, and then it uses its hefty neck muscles to pull large chunks of meat off the animal. These muscles also move the esophagus from side to side so meat can more easily move down to the stomach.
The dragon’s stomach can also stretch quite a lot, letting the animal consume up to 80% of its weight in one sitting. Think about what it means to eat 80% of your own body weight: if you are 150 lbs, you’d have to eat a 120 lbs of steak to match the appetite of a Komodo dragon!
Across the island, we saw several splotches of white, chalky dust, which Ari told us were piles of crushed up bone, remnants of the dragons’ waste. The dragons don’t crush the bones as they eat — no, they dismember their pray by ripping the flesh off their joints and jerking back and forth to separate portions of the carcass. Then they eat bones whole. When a Komodo dragon makes a kill, it eats almost all of the animal, including its bones, hooves, and internal organs. The bones don’t get digested, and they make their way back out as little piles of dust.
The only way to understand the true nature of the Komodo dragon is to visit them in Indonesia. The have been around for four million years, but centuries of poaching have severely diminished their population, to the point where they are nearly endangered. Fortunately, Indonesia now protects their dragons. Hunting them is now illegal, and their habitat is protected as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The islands they live on are their paradise, with all the food and shelter they’ll ever need to survive. The little guys are doing all right where they are now; they just need continual support from humans to bring back their populations to ensure they make it through the next four million years.
Learn more about Komodo dragon conservation efforts in Indonesia by visiting the Komodo Survival Program.
Disclaimer: This trip was not funded by the Illinois Science Council.
Ben Marcus is a public relations specialist at CG Life and a co-editor-in-chief of Science Unsealed. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Chicago. You can read his other Science Unsealed blogs here.