Komodo Island illustration

Here be Dragons!

Explore the real-life world of dragons…

Tom Jameson, PhD student says,

Dragons do not only populate the myths and legends of the past, but also the world around us. Komodo dragons, Varanus komodoensis, are the world’s largest lizards, so named for reminding early explorers of the beasts of legend.

Life as a Komodo dragon

Komodo dragon’s skin is rough and durable like other large lizards, covered in bony plates called osteoderms. Their scales are a mixture of colours including blue, orange, green and gray.

Komodo dragons are the worlds largest species of lizard, large males can reach over 3m in length. How many steps or hands does it take to travel from the head to the toe of a komodo dragon?

Komodo dragons have specialist curved serrated teeth for cutting meat. These are very similar in shape and structure to meat eating dinosaurs like the T-rex.

Their venomous bite helps them to take down large prey.

Komodo Dragon skeleton - closeup of teeth. University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Komodo dragon skeleton,
close-up

Have a close look at the Komodo dragon image. All of the teeth are the same sharp, triangular shape. These are excellent at holding onto and tearing up meat.

Komodo dragons eating deer, Varanus komodoensis. Image credit Nathan Rusli
Image credit Nathan Rusli

Komodo dragons have an excellent sense of smell. It work’s much like snake tongues, with a forked end to sample the air. They then touch the tongue to the roof of their mouth, where special organs analyze the airborne molecules. If the right tongue tip has a more concentrated ‘smell’, the dragon knows that their prey is to the right. 

Komodo dragon. Credit David Clode on Unsplash
Image credit David Clode on Unsplash

Using the activity sheet below (or create your own version at home) and choose Komodo dragon features to draw close-up snapshots of. For example, a close-up of the dragon’s skin, or of it’s sharp teeth or claws.

Dragons in trouble…

Despite their size and formidable reputation, Komodo dragons are in trouble. Habitat loss and persecution by humans has driven them to the very brink of extinction. Their range is now limited to the handful of tiny islands that make up Komodo National Park in Indonesia.

Even protected within the Park the future of Komodo dragons is far form certain. Climate change predictions suggest that warming and drying of the islands that make up the National Park may make it uninhabitable for Komodo dragons in the future.

Komodo dragon skeleton. University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge

This isn’t just bad news for Komodo dragons, but also for the other species in the ecosystem. Komodo dragons are top predators and play an important role in regulating and managing the ecosystems in which they occur, without them the whole ecosystem is at risk.

Researchers at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge are working to protect Komodo dragons by predicting how they will respond to climate change. These predictions can be used to build strategies to respond to this change to save the dragon and their ecosystems.

Dragons of the past: Megalania

Human impact

Human impacts on animals didn’t just start recently, we have been fundamentally altering every ecosystem we occur in for tens of thousands of years. In order to restore ecosystems to a healthy state we can’t just return things to how they were a few decades ago, we must look further back in time to identify what healthy functional ecosystems looked like.

Create your own vision for the future at home. Would you include Komodo dragons in your World of Tomorrow?

Click the image or here to go to this activity.

Komodo dragons are particularly important in the ecosystems in which they occur, regulating the ecosystem from the top down by acting as top predators. They are also under threat, particularly from climate change. Temperatures are predicted to rise rapidly in South East Asia in the next 100 years, making the current range of Komodo dragons uninhabitable.

In response, we will need to identify areas within the historic range of the dragons that will still be inhabitable as the climate changes. We can do this by looking at the fossil record and climate model predictions.

Photo by Irina Irina on Pexels.com

The public can help support the Komodo dragon by supporting charities such as the Komodo Survival Program and taking steps in their lives to limit their contribution to climate change.

Find out more about how human impact and climate change is impacting wildlife around the world here (with Primary school curriculum links).

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