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Varanus komodoensis Print E-mail
Komodo dragon, Ora

Varanus komodoensis  Ouwens 1912

The Komodo dragon is the World's most infamous lizard. Not only is it the largest and most aggressive living lizard, but it is also one of the most endangered. Komodo dragons live only in the driest, most remote parts of Indonesia, on the small islands of Komodo Rintja, Gillimontang, Padar and the western tip of Flores. In keeping with the lizards' ancient aspect, their range is ridden with earthquake zones and volcanos. In 1970's the total population of Komodo dragons was thought to be less than 6,000 (Auffenberg 1981). There are suggestions that the poaching of deer has lead to the extinction of the Komodo dragon on Padar (Marcellini 1991).

Although the Portuguese and Dutch had been "busy" in Indonesia since the 16th Century the Komodo dragon escaped the attention of modern science until 1910. Lieutenant Van Steyn van Hensbroek of the Dutch Infantry, who was based in Flores, mentioned to Ouwens that a particularly large monitor lizard was said to inhabit the neighbouring island of Komodo. When the Lieutenant visited the islands he heard reports that the animals grew to 6 or 7 metres long, but the largest he was able to catch was only 2.2 metres long. A collector was despatched to Komodo who returned to Java with two adults (290cm and 235cm) and two juveniles (100cm) which were formally described in 1912. Ouwens tried to play down the stories of  6 metre long lizards, but doubtless felt obliged to report all that he had heard about the animals. Stories of the giant lizards spread very quickly and before long trophy hunters began to flock to the islands in the hope of shooting some of the massive beasts. Discounting the locals' account that the lizards rarely, if ever, exceeded three metres in length, the hunters baited the dragons with dead goats and must have found them very easy targets as they grouped around the carrion. Despite stories of  4 or 5 metres animals being taken (e.g. Broughton 1936), the largest that reached Europe and North America were 2.75 metres long. The myths persisted however, until they were finally laid to rest by Walter Auffenberg's 13-month field study of the species which reported (1981) that the largest specimen available was almost exactly 3 metres long. Several other species of monitor lizard attain a similar size, but none have the bulk of the Komodo dragon. The heaviest recorded by Auffenberg  was a 2.5m animal which weighed 54kg. When full of food the same animal weighed around 100kg. Auffenberg believed that 3m lizards could therefore weigh up to 250kg, and although this figure is often cited as their maximum weight there is no hard evidence to support it.

Komodo dragons inhabit areas of dry savannah and woodland, and frequent thick monsoon forest along water courses. They spend most of their time on the boundary of grassland and forest where they have access to a wide range of temperatures within a small area. As juveniles they lead very secretive lives, sheltering under bark and feeding on insects (grasshoppers and beetles) and geckoes. As they grow they become too heavy to forage on trees and their diet shifts to one comprised mainly of rodents and birds (and the occasional porcupine) which are collected on or below the ground. Adult Komodo dragons are fearsome predators. They will attack and kill weaker dragons and feed on a variety of snakes (including vipers and cobras), crocodile eggs and young and often raid the nests of megapode birds (Lincoln 1974). But the bulk of their diet is made up of large mammals; goats, deer, pigs, horses and water buffalo. These prey are often caught by ambush or surprise. The dragons hide in long grass along game trails and rush their prey as it passes, crippling it by severing tendons in the legs before killing it with a bite to the throat or by ripping out the intestines. Auffenberg suggests that the lizards needed to get to within 1m of the prey without being detected for such ambushes to be effective. He provides pictures of a 320kg buffalo that was attacked and crippled by a 2.8m dragon and suggests that buffalo as large as 590kg are sometimes killed by adults. Sometimes adult dragons attack ridiculously large prey (see Chapter 4) but they usually select weak or young victims. They often feed on foals and young deer, even snatching baby animals from between the legs of the mother during birth. The dragons can identify heavily pregnant mammals by their smell and may attempt to induce miscarriage in those that are too large to be attacked successfully.



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The Butaan Project
The Butaan Project - Background and History
butaan2.jpgThe butaan was first described to science in 1845 from a juvenile specimen collected by Hugh Cuming. It was labelled only "Philippines". It was named Varanus grayi.  No other specimens came to light for over 120 years. In the 1970s Walter Auffenberg found another specimen with a location in Luzon, established that its correct scientific name was Varanus olivaceus, and undertook a 22 month study of the species based in Bicol. His study revealed that butaan occupy a unique ecological niche and have a lifestyle quite unlike any other monitor lizard. Auffenberg used local hunters with dogs to catch the animals. Of 126 butaan caught during his study, 116 animals were killed.


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