On a tiny copper globe dating from 1507, there are the words hic sunt dracones: ‘here be dragons’. The words appear off the eastern coast of Asia, not far from which are the small Indonesian islands where the world’s largest lizard, the 3-metre-long, 100kg Komodo dragon, lives.
The Komodo dragon has the smallest range of any large carnivore on Earth – just five arid islands in Indonesia, including Komodo Island itself. Prey is hard to find, and the dragons make do with whatever they can get – introduced deer, carrion, younger Komodo dragons, even human corpses. A large mammalian predator would be unable to find enough food on these islands to maintain a suitable population, so with mammals unable to take the top spot on the food chain, the reptiles have done so instead. And since they only need to feed a dozen times a year, they are perfect for the role.
Despite its huge size, though, the dragon wasn’t discovered by Europeans until 1910. As rumours of a ‘land crocodile’ started spreading around the western world, more and more people travelled to the island of Komodo to study them. The animal was the driving factor behind an expedition to the island in 1926. After returning to Europe with twelve preserved Komodo dragon specimens and two live ones, which were exhibited in the Reptile House in London Zoo, the expedition provided the inspiration for the 1933 movie King Kong.
The Komodo dragon is a terrifying animal, not just because of its size but also due its aggressive behaviour. It may lie motionless for days, waiting for deer to pass by. Then it explodes out of its hiding place and attacks its prey’s stomach or throat, quickly overpowering it. For larger animals, such as introduced water buffalo, the dragon tries a different tactic. Its bite is not especially powerful (six times weaker than that of a similar-sized crocodile, in fact), so it is unable to hold on to a struggling buffalo effectively. Instead, it sneaks up on a buffalo (assuming a huge, lumbering lizard can sneak up on anything), gives it a nasty bite and then retreats before the buffalo can injure it. The buffalo may have a wound on its leg, but it doesn’t seem fatally injured so it continues with its business.
In all likeliness, though, the buffalo is already dead. The bite of a Komodo dragon not only contains virulent bacteria, but it is also venomous. The venom prevents blood coagulation, resulting in constant blood loss, and it also lowers the prey’s blood pressure. The wound soon becomes gangrenous and infected. It may take several days but the water buffalo eventually collapses due to exhaustion and septicaemia.
Throughout this time, the Komodo dragon that originally bit the buffalo will have been stalking it across the island. Not only that, but several other dragons may have been attracted by the smell of putrefying flesh that the wound has been giving off, so that by the time the buffalo collapses, numerous dragons will converge upon it and start devouring it even before it has died. Thanks to their loosely hinged lower jaws and elastic stomachs, the huge reptiles can eat up to 75% of their bodyweight in one sitting. In a matter of hours, there will be nothing left of the buffalo but a few scattered bones – even the hooves will have been eaten.
The age of the reptiles, which lasted for two hundred million years, ended with the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. But the presence of the huge predatory Komodo dragons shows that, in a few select places in the world at least, reptiles still hold dominion over the land.