The Komodo Dragon, Komodo Monitor or “Ora” are all names used for the largest lizard alive on Earth. The Komodo Dragon‘s discovery, which occurred in 1910 by a Dutch Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, should have happened sooner.
Alfred Russel Wallace, the British Naturalist, sailed right beside and passed Komodo Island in the period between 1857-1859 and either was never told by his guides what lived there or they didn’t know. Either way he made no mention of it in his publication, the “Malay Archipelago,” 1869, although he did discover over 1000 new species, he missed perhaps the most spectacular find of all! The giant lizard that would inspire the world, the Komodo Dragon!
Popular fiction, being what it is, of course led to some rather strange and ridiculous pieces of art and imagination.
Long said to have dangerous bacteria in their mouths that kills any prey that escapes after the first bite, it is now a proven fact that the Komodo Dragon are venomous lizards, thanks to the observation, field and laboratory tests, and hard work of Dr. Bryan G. Frye “The Venom Doc.”. Eating a dead water buffalo, a piece at time, is typical for a Komodo Dragon. Like all large monitor lizards they tear chunks from large prey species and bolt down bones, muscles and organs. Their digestive system is very efficient, allowing them to go for months on relatively poor quality food.
Erroneously said to be undigested calcium, these white fecal lumps are called urate. This is the nitrogenous end product of an excellent digestive system, not undigested matter from a poor one. It is, in effect, solid urine.
The first two live Komodo Dragons arrived in Europe, in 1927. They were exhibited in the Reptile House at the London Zoo. Zoologist Joan Beauchamp Procter, was expert in the routine handling of animals such as large pythons and crocodilians, and so she became the keeper of the dragons as well. She made some of the earliest and most amazing observations which she presented to a Scientific Meeting of the Zoological Society of London in 1928.
Procter was well aware that “they could no doubt kill one, (human) if they wished, or give a terrible bite”, but good care, feeding and strange, if routine, handling resulted in dragons described “as tame as dogs and even seem to show affection.” She demonstrated their behavior in captivity is often contrary to their popular image, even today 90 years later, as dangerous predators.
With “Sumbawa” she established an extraordinary rapport, and it became Joan’s peculiar pet, accompanying her around the Zoo. She ‘steered’ it by holding the tail and moving as if guiding a wheel barrow.
Merian C. Cooper, pilot, adventurer and sometime film maker, read a book printed in 1928 about an island in the far off Pacific where giant 30 ft lizards roamed. (At the time 30 ft lizards were reported, they were exaggerations.)
From this reading, combined with a dream about a giant baboon fighting a giant lizard, (which is how the battle of Kong and T Rex developed,) a female lead, Fay Ray, that he knew from earlier work, some newly discovered fossilized animals, (Tyrannosaurus and others were only found 20 years previous,) and his fondness for the hard “K” of Komodo, which led to “King Kong,” he created the movie, King Kong, in 1933. The book that started it all was called “The Dragon Lizards of Komodo,” by W. Douglas Burden.
It was Burden that coined “Komodo Dragon,” and it was his book that almost led to their extermination as hunters and specimen seekers from all over the world descended on the isles to kill a dragon. Burden’s original specimens went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they are still on display. (Below)
Boar, deer and water buffalo are the three primary sources of food for adult dragons, though they have been observed eating a dead dolphin scavenged along the beach, snakes, birds, sea turtles and one another when the size difference was great.
Walter Auffenberg and his family stayed on Komodo for 11 months, after which he documented his observations in “The Behavioral Ecology of the Komodo Monitor.” This book is still the best treatment to date, in spite of missing the fact that the dragons are venomous.
The young dragons take to the trees, lest their older cousins dine on them too.
An early photo of dragons in the wild.
Being the prefect patient while receiving acupuncture treatments to relieve aching joints in a zoo in Texas.
Most of the dragons have little interest in humans, some are casually curious and only a very few will actively seek to injure a person. Shade is always appreciated, even if it’s under a human’s house, which for the dragons must be a very smelly spot to relax.
Stamps too are covered with dragons.
And if being attacked by terrestrial Komodo Dragons isn’t exciting enough, there are always Space Komodo Dragons to tackle!
Illustration on left by Mort Kunstler, illustration on right from a 1950’s German Sci-Fi magazine called Terra.
This man is an Indonesian Wildlife guide who was bitten on the arm by a dragon while trying to chase one off with a stick. the dragon had gotten to close to his human charges and standard procedure is to use a stick. He was lucky enough to have emergency medical care available so he lost neither his arm nor his life.
Feared and revered, we have so much to learn about these intelligent and ferocious, yet peaceful and contented giants.
Author Bill Boesenberg