• Carrie Gardner

Puff is not the Magic Dragon, I Am.

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

Si Gerong hugging his twin sister Orah.

A long, long time ago, a woman married a man whom she was very much in love with. But she was not just an ordinary woman, Putri Naga was a Dragon Princess. With her husband Majo, they welcomed twins. The boy was named Si Gerong and she raised him amongst the people of the village. Her daughter, Orah, however, was born a dragon and Putri Naga raised her in the forest. Neither of the twins knew one another. Years later, Si Gerong was hunting and had felled a deer. As he was approaching it to retrieve, a very large lizard jumped out of the forest and hungrily grabbed the deer. He attempted to scare the lizard away but it only protected the deer more and barred its teeth. As he readied his spear to kill the beast, a radiant woman appeared. Putri Naga said “Do not kill this animal, she is your sister Orah. Consider her your equal as you are twins.” Si Gerong, understandably, was confused, but Putri Naga continued. She explained that she was a daughter of the Dragons in the Heavens. But that she had fallen in love with his father, a human, and gave up her place in the Heavens.

To this day, the people on the islands consider these animals sacred and treat them kindly. The dragons roam forests freely, eating their fill. And when they can no longer fend for themselves, their human brothers step in and care for them. ~ INDONESIAN KOMODO DRAGON CREATION LEGEND

Putri Naga appearing to tell Si Gerong that the dragon is his twin sister, Orah

Here there be real dragons... Dragons do roam this earth. Only they are missing the fire breathing halitois and wings. Komodo dragons are the largest lizard on this planet. They can reach ten feet and be over 300 pounds. They are an imposing animal that is only found on five islands in the Lesser Sunda region in the Indonesia Archipelago. The largest, Komodo Island, is only 22 miles long. These islands, along with 28 more, make up Komodo National Park (there is one, Flores Island, that isn’t considered part of the park, that has a population of Komodo dragons.) There are just under 3,000 alive in the wild. The western world didn’t have any knowledge of Komodo dragons until 1912. In terms of studying animal behavior, it is in its infancy, as recent major discoveries prove.

A crash course... These giants are an earthy gray/brown/black and have a unique, intimidating walk. They swing their muscular limbs out in a bow-legged fashion, swinging their enormous heads back and forth flicking their long forked tongues out in order to get any whiff of prey. They have huge paddle-like feet that end in really long claws, which are used to bring down prey, hold prey down as they grab a piece of meat and to dig. Fun Fact: All wild dragons live within a 700 square mile area with a population 2,500 - 3,000. For that area, it is a stable population, except for only the 200-300 females that exist. Under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they are considered vulnerable, even though they are stable and have successfully been protected in Komodo National Park. No matter how big their numbers, their limited range will always keep them vulnerable. There are always threats like hurricanes and the volcanoes that created the islands where they live.

Life can be rough sometimes

Komodo dragons are monitor lizards, a Varanid species like other monitor lizards, are considered extremely intelligent and capable of meeting the definition of “playful.” Something odd was happening at the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington D.C. - Kraken, a female Komodo was pulling things out of her keeper’s pockets and tugging on their shoelaces. Intrigued, they gave her all sorts of things like frisbees, blankets, and beverage cans. She took an active interest in all of them. She also learned to come when there was a whistle and not only knew all of her keepers but has bonded too. Tug of war is a favorite past time. She reacted differently to each toy and was able to distinguish prey from non-prey. Dragons have excellent eyesight - able to see at least three football fields. The retinas are all cones, which means they are like us who see in colors but have lousy vision at night. Hearing, unfortunately, isn’t that great. They hear between 400 and 2000 hertz. In contrast, humans hear between 20 and 20,000 hertz. Their sense of smell? Just downright scary. Like snakes, (a close relative), dragons have forked tongues that they flick out to collect air molecules. They then insert each side of the fork into holes in the roof of the mouth (called the Jacobsen’s organ) where it is processed by the brain. They can catch a whiff of a dead animal five miles away! In the front of their mouths, like snakes, they have a tube called the glottis. When they are swallowing large amounts of meat, they can extend the glottis out so they can breathe. Also like snakes, they have a loosely articulated jaw and flexible skull to accommodate large chunks of food and their stomachs also expand. Though they may look relaxed and slow, these animals can run 13 - 14 miles in short bursts and are extremely strong swimmers, laying their limbs flat against their body and using their tail to propel them forward and their head to direct - much like crocodilians. Also like crocodilians, Komodo dragons have osteoderms. Bone under their skin that serves to protect them, like chain mail. [Second photograph shows the glottis in the front of the mouth. The white portion on his lower jaws is muscle. This is very similar to close relatives, the snakes.]​ Fun Fact: Komodo Dragons were the inspiration of King Kong.

Is this love?

Boys will be boys

Males are very territorial, though females can show it too, especially around nesting season. There are no differences morphological between sexes and can be downright hard to tell apart. Even in captivity. St. Augustine Alligator Farm got a female (or so they thought) named Tambora. A few years later, they brought in a male named Tujah. Blood tests showed that Tambora was also a male. He was sent to another zoo to be matched up with (hopefully) a female, and I believe they got a new female for Tujah. Luckily, the dragons can tell the difference. Males start fighting to impress the ladies. Females will lay about 30 eggs in depressions dug on hill slopes or nests of megapodes (large chicken-like birds). Delays in egg laying can help protect the eggs during the really hot dry season and can allow unfertilized eggs to become fertilized if there is another mating. Females may lay over her eggs for the nine-month they incubate, but that is the only parental care they receive. In fact, to keep from being gorged by Auntie Sue, hatchlings run out of the nest and run up the tree, maybe after rolling around in dad’s poop to mask their scent. There they eat lizards and other animals up there and don’t come down until four or five years old when they are around four or five feet.

Narcissism at its best.

Two juvenile Komodo dragons, born normally.

In 2006, something rare happened. Two females, both of whom had not been with a male, laid viable eggs that hatched out. The scientific term is parthenogenesis and is very rare invertebrates. What happens is the female is able to use other cells to fertilize eggs. In the Komodo dragon’s case, it is another egg. The young are not clones. The mother’s genome is that of a male and female. The eggs have a genome of only their mother. Each successful hatching will be male. In humans, our gender is determined by our fathers. Females are XX and they can only contribute an X. Males are XY. If the baby gets the X, it’s a girl! If it’s Y, it’s a boy! Dragons are the opposite of us. Scientists use W and Z so, in females, each egg either contains a W and a Z. With parthenogenesis, the eggs are either WW or ZZ. Since W is the female chromosome, WW isn’t viable. But ZZ is viable and those are the males. The reason for this unique reproductive method is not because females don’t want to mate but think being gravid is fun. It most likely formed for survival. If a female is swept into the ocean and lands on an island where there are no Komodo dragons, she can still keep the species going, however, with very low genetic diversity. But I think it’s obvious that female dragons think themselves too beautiful to allow anyone’s genomes in her children other than hers.

Fun Fact: George H.W. Bush was once gifted a Komodo dragon from Indonesia. President Bush gave Naga to the Cincinnati Zoo, where he fathered 32 young and lived to the ripe old age of 24. Carnivores and the controversy over how they kill

Two Komodo dragons predating on a goat ("predating" makes it sound nicer, don't you think?)

They are carnivores and aren’t that picky (like most carnivores) about what they eat. Their usual prey is Timor deer, but there are also wild pigs, monkeys and water buffalo, carrion, and whatever else they can stuff in their mouth. Scavenging is actually common with their incredible sense of smell able to pick up eating whatever rotting carcasses they can find. In fact, local villagers have to put piles of large rocks on top of the graves of loved ones to prevent dragons from digging them up. And yes, they can - and have - killed people. People can’t walk around the park without rangers with them. But it’s rare. There have been four people killed since 1974 - occurring in 1974, 2000, 2004, and 2009. There have been at least eight attacks. Between the 4,000 residents that coexist with them, and the boatloads of tourists, that’s a very low number. They are also cannibals. Though this too isn’t uncommon behavior with carnivores, it is significant in that it is also thought to be population controls. Living on only five small islands, there are only so many resources. They can eat 80% their body weight, and eat it quickly and have been seen eating 5.5 pounds of meat in a minute, using its 60 sharp serrated teeth (like a shark). It has about five sets of teeth to last the average age of 30-50 years. They also only leave 12% of their meals behind - much lower than other carnivores. They eat bones, hooves, sections of hide, and internal organs. After digesting food (reptiles can take a while), they regurgitate a gastric pellet full of things that can’t be digested like horns, hooves, hair, teeth, and claws.

So how do they kill?

First off, they aren’t the malicious slow-moving animal that who patiently waits for the demise of their prey that people think of when they think of big lizards. In fact, it has not been scientifically documented that Komodo dragons slowly stalk any prey at all. Instead, they are ambush predators (another snake behavior), waiting on trails for animals to come by, sometimes for hours. When the time comes, the lunge up, using their powerful limbs and tail to quickly lunge up to take a chunk out. The prey dies quickly and horribly. The only exception is the water buffalo. They are an introduced species and are much larger than the generally sized prey Komodos consume. A bite to a water buffalo is usually non-fatal and it takes a little help to enjoy a large meal. They can even run around 13 miles an hour.

[Must Watch!! See a dragon tail whip another dragon!!]

The charge

In 1969, herpetologist Walter Auffenberg moved his family to Komodo Island for 11 months so he could study these giant lizards. He and his assistant, Putra Sastrawan, caught and tagged 50 dragons and swabbed them on their gums. He found four strains in their mouth, three of which were commonly found. Auffenburg claimed that the Komodo dragon’s bite caused death by a deadly mix of bacteria, and referenced how water buffalo are killed. Twenty years later, in 2002, another study was done that retested Walter Auffenberg tests. They isolated 58 different strains with the highest loads found in wild dragons. Most of the bacteria were commonly found in soils, plants, and other animals’ skins. One bacteria, Pasteurella multocida, that was used in experiments on mice was only found in 5% of dragons and it wasn’t capable of causing death by septicemia. Fun Fact: Fossil records show that the Komodo dragons originated from Australia. Like many animals, including us, the got to the islands in Indonesia by a land bridge when the water was low enough to expose the land. What gives? It’s evolutionary impossible for bacteria to be the cause of death for prey and if that was how Komodo dragons killed their prey, they would have become extinct. What Bacteria is a living organism that can be found anywhere on or in their bodies and are extremely variable. A dragon tested may have just have gulped down rotting meat or drank from the stagnant ponds on the island - increasing the number of bacteria in their mouth.. Since they can survive on 12 meals a year, a dragon tested will show that the bacteria is probably typical of any other carnivore (which is the case). For bacteria to be the cause of death for their prey, each Komodo dragon would need to have the same cocktail of virulent bacteria without it being diluted, leaving the body, or dying. The reason why wild dragon bacteria species was higher than the captive Komodos is that one group eats wild animals and the other group is eating clean meat provided by zoos. In humans, bacterial strains will change when we eat, drink, brush our teeth, use mouthwash or take a shower.

In 2006, Dr. Bryan Fry made a discovery that changed everything the scientific community thought of how dragons killed. Dr. Fry had made the discovery that lace monitors, close relatives to Komodos, were venomous. He then wondered if Komodo dragons would be the same. He performed an MRI on a Komodo dragon’s head and two long venom glands on the lower jaw that are the most structurally complex of any other venomous reptile. Each venom gland has six compartments with ducts leading from each one to spaces between teeth. While snakes inject venom and lizards like beaded lizards or Gila monsters have groves in their teeth and chew, the Komodo dragon does a “grip and rip” bite, pulling back with powerful neck muscles causes enormous wounds that envenomate the animal. Monitor lizards are closely related to snakes. That itself is evidenced by their large forked tongues and how they are used for the same exact thing as snakes. Including the venom. There are 600 toxins in a Komodo dragon’s venom, most of which have properties that have anti-coagulating properties, causing a lot of internal hemorrhaging from leaky blood vessels, a lot of external hemorrhaging, extremely low blood pressure, muscle contractions, shock, paralysis, and death. The dragons only need 4 mg of venom to kill an 80-pound deer. A full venom gland has at least eight times that amount.

Classic Steve Irwin! Very informative - count how many times Steve gets chased up a tree or has a dragon approach him.

Fun Fact: The Komodo dragon’s tail is very powerful. They can sweep it underneath an animal to knock it off its feet or use it in defense...they curl their tail and as they walk by the object of the ire, they let it fly where it hits with a loud smack. Detractors that still insist that prey dies from bacterial infections claim that the venom might do something else, or work with the bacteria. But venom is very costly to make. If animals stop using it, natural selection does away with it. For those that stop using their venom, their venom glands atrophy,

They are prolific droolers.

Their fangs became smaller, and the genes that produce venom built up debilitating mutations. Komodo dragons’ venomous glands are loaded with venom. They are definitely using their venom as a primary source of death in their prey. There has been no prey victim that has died from bacteria (except for water buffalo). Dangerous bacteria has been isolated in Komodo dragons, but no single bacterial strain has been consistently found in every dragon where they could rely on to kill prey. Let's talk about prey. When Komodo dragons attack they kill deer or pigs quickly. Three-quarters of these smaller prey bleed out within 30 minutes. Another 15% die within hours from muscle weakness and low blood pressure, caused by the venom. Water buffalo are a completely different story. These large animals were introduced to the islands and are too large for a Komodo dragon to kill. Most bites to the water buffalo are non-fatal. However, water buffalo aren’t from those islands. In their native land, their instincts are to run to the water and get in it. In these islands, there are no fresh sources of water for them to go in. There are stagnant, rank ponds, however. The water is a cesspool, full of fecal matter and urine of water buffalo. Acting on their instincts, they get into that water and THAT is where the water buffalo gets infected. The fetid water gets into the wound and they die from sepsis. Fun Fact: The locals in Indonesia call Komodo dragons “ora” which translates to “land crocodiles.” Can they really be full of magic?

A Komodo dragon's very strong immune system not only insures these two's wounds but hopefully can be helpful for us.

Komodo dragons (and crocodilians) have extraordinary properties in their blood. These animals are territorial and there are violent fights. Their natural habitat is filthy. It is not unusual to see wounds and wonder how they can survive. But they do. They heal completely. Researchers wanted to find out what is in their blood that allows them to heal so quickly and completely and why infections don’t occur. To do this, they went to St. Augustine Alligator Farm where my buddy Tujah gave a blood sample (I love that place and have spent a lot of time “bonding” staring and taking pictures with Tujah.) Barney Bishop, a biochemist at George Mason University was able to isolate peptides or small proteins produced by their immune system. They then made artificial versions of these peptides. They took the most promising -DRGN-1 - in wounded mice and human skin cell cultures.

The results? Incredible. They destroyed the outer layer of bacteria, dissolved biofilms, a sticky colony of microbes that form to resist antibiotics, and the wounds healed faster. If this can be made into an antibiotic, it should be able to work on what would’ve been an antibiotic-resistant infection before. It doesn’t stop there either. The Department of Defense (Actually, The Defense Threat Reduction Agency) actually paid for the research because it is interested in the results and how it relates to bioweapons.

In conclusion

Komodo dragons are one of the most popular animals in zoos. There is a mystique about them. A sense that they are indeed prehistoric and should be cast as the villain in the next Jurassic Movie. They are monsters in the wild, but then again, in zoos, they become bonded to their trainers and are quite playful. It’s important to realize, though, that the Western World has only had the pleasure of knowing this animal for 107 years. We know only a fraction about them. It took 97 years to discover that they are venomous! Personally, I can’t wait to see what new discoveries will be made. And I feel an urge to head up to St. Augustine and visit Tujah!

Look at his muscles, the width of his foot, and the cold yellow of his eyes!

As usual, I have a lot more pictures than shown. The first group will be the ones I took of Tujah (who donated a blood sample to help develop life-saving medicine), and Tambora from St. Augustine Alligator Farm. If you are ever in the area, go visit. They are the only Zoo in the world to have all the species of crocodilians, And many more animals. (St. Augustine Alligator Farm)

Tujah - February 2017

One of my favorite pictures up above, with his reflection.

Tambora - February 2017

All the rest...

I WILL tail whip you...I dare you to touch me!

OMIGOSH! That is the best joke I have ever heard!!

A baby hiding out from his parents. They found out that he borrowed the car without permission

When a Komodo dragon says he is going to give you a tail whippin', he means it.

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