A weekly feature named ‘The Hunter’s High Road.’ Each Tuesday check back to see an animal that represents the apex of predatory evolution. Carnivores come in a range of shapes and sizes, using a variety of tricks to catch their prey. Some are powerful, some are beautiful. All are deadly.
The predator on display this week is the Komodo Dragon, the largest species of lizard in the world. Measuring up to a maximum length of 3 metres, these creatures are native to the island of Komodo for which they’re named after. Their large size has been linked to island gigantism, since there are no other carnivores to fill the niche of top predator.
The lizards have a highly developed sense of smell, enabling them to locate an animal from up to 9.5 km away. Despite mostly eating carrion, the lizards prey on pigs, monkeys, goats, birds and a variety of others through ambush tactics. When prey arrives, the Komodo Dragon charges it and attacks the underside of the throat.
Their eating habits involve tearing large chunks of flesh and swallowing them whole. With smaller animals like goats, their loose jaws allow them to eat the prey in one go. A Komodo Dragon may slam the carcass against a tree repeatedly in order to speed up the swallowing. To prevent choking it breathes through a small tube under the tongue that connects to the lungs.
Although these Dragons don’t breathe fire they are known to have a venomous bite. In 2009 it was confirmed that the lizard’s venom kills its prey if they survival the initial attack. It was previously disputed that bacteria in the lizard’s saliva was responsible for the killing.
Mating happens between May and August and eggs are laid in September. Males engage in vicious fights to win the right to breed. Even then the victor’s job isn’t done as the females are just as antagonistic during early courtship. The male must fully restrain the female in order to stop himself from being hurt.
Despite contrary belief, Komodo Dragons avoid encounters with humans. Juveniles will escape if their hideout is discovered. Adults will only attack if given no other choice, and they usually hiss and swing their tail before biting.
Approximately 4000 to 5000 living Komodo Dragons have been recorded in the wild. They are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List. To combat that, the Komodo National Park was set up in 1980 to protect the population on islands such as Komodo, Rinca and Padar.
Komodo Dragons are the perfect example of power and speed. Although fearsome in appearance they remind us that nature always finds a way to fulfill an evolutionary imperative.