The Komodo Dragon (varanus komodoensis) is, as every schoolchild knows, the coolest lizard in the world, the next best thing to a real live dinosaur.

First discovered by Western science on the island of Komodo in Indonesia in the early 20th century, there are only about 6,000 Komodo Dragons alive today, their habitat restricted to a few Indonesian islands (Flores, Komodo, Gili Motang and Rinca) where the local name for them is ora. They are also sometimes referred to as buaja darat (land crocodile), though this is inaccurate as they are true lizards, not crocodilians. Up to the 1970's they could also be found on the island of Padar.

Komodo Dragons belong to the family Varanidae, which includes over 50 species of monitor lizard, of which they are the biggest. In fact, at up to ten feet long when fully grown, they are the biggest lizards in the world, and can weigh over 500 pounds. The females are smaller and lighter, with an average adult length of about 7 feet and weighing 150 pounds. They are mostly black, green or gray, with patches of yellow, brown or white. They can live for up to 50 years in the wild, though most of them don't make it past childhood.

Komodo Dragons are accustomed to a hot climate, and have been found in environments ranging from open, dry grassland to rain forest. For the first couple of years of their life they live in trees as a safeguard against being eaten by others of their own kind, surviving mostly on insects and geckos. Adults will eat practically any kind of meat, including that of younger dragons, and frequently scavenge the kills of other predators, but they are just as capable as hunters, and their most popular prey is the Sunda deer.

As hunters, these lizards are badass. A Komodo Dragon can run faster than many humans over short distances, and they do not need to finish their prey quickly - their mouths contain over 50 types of toxic bacteria, 7 of which can cause severe blood poisoning. Usefully, however, their bites are not poisonous to other komodo dragons. They can smell carrion at distances of 6 to 7 miles due to Jacobsen's Organ, an olfactory enhancement in the roof of their mouths. Due to competition at mealtimes, Komodo Dragons have developed a tooth structure that is more commonly seen in sharks than lizards, and can consume 80% of their own body weight in one sitting, sometimes in less than half an hour, after which it will not need to eat again for about a week. They are also good swimmers, and can catch fish. Uniquely for a lizard, it is at the top of the food chain in the islands it inhabits.

Severely endangered, the Komodo Dragon is an internationally protected species, but can fetch as much as $30,000 on the black market, for anyone foolhardy or rich enough to want to own such a dangerous pet. However, they are more in danger from the reduction of their natural habitat than from hunting. Also, there is regular hurricane and volcanic activity in the vicinity of their islands, which stresses the fragile ecosystem even more. Komodo National Park was created in 1980 to protect most of their natural hunting range, but it is not known whether their numbers are increasing.

It is thought that the dragons were left isolated in their island habitats by retreating ice at the end of the last ice age - a much larger, almost dinosaurian species, Megalania prisca was alive in Australia as recently as 25,000 years ago. This super-lizard reached lengths of up to six meters, and humans may have encountered it (or even caused its extinction). There are even persistent, though rare, contemporary reports of encounters with giant lizards deep in the outback, and some people think Megalania prisca may still be alive in certain remote regions.

Update: It appears due to a recent case (21st December 2006) that Komodo Dragons share a somewhat rare but well-documented ability of certain lizards to self-fertilize and therefore reproduce asexually. Parthenogenesis has been recorded in many lizard species but never among the dragons, and due to their currently-endangered status, this discovery has made conservationists quite happy. It also made the papers very happy, since the story was splashed a few days before Christmas with headlines such as "Virgin to give birth" and "Dragon Virgin's Immaculate Conception". One version of the story, from MSNBC:
The Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the largest lizard known to scientists. It commonly grows to over three meters in length, and weighs over two hundred kilograms. They are indigenous to the Komodo Islands (hence the name), and are the top predators there.

V. Komodoensis’ primary diet consists of deer and wild boar, but it is willing to eat anything, including smaller dragons. The reptile is capable of short bursts of 20 kilometers per hour (12.4 miles/hour), but prefers to hide and ambush its prey. It primarily tracks prey using its well-developed sense of smell, although it is capable of seeing objects 300 meters away.

After pouncing, V. Komodoensis will attempt to rip the prey apart with its sharp claws and teeth. Even if the prey successfully escapes, multiple bacteria found in the predator’s saliva will kill the prey via infection. V. Komodoensis, among the most intelligent of reptiles, will often take advantage of this when attacking larger beasts; it will bite the prey and flee, waiting for the infection to kill it. Once the animal dies, the smell will attract dragons nearby.

When feeding over a large creature, V. Komodoensis will adhere to a certain order. The largest and oldest lizards have priority, while the younger ones eat what was not taken. Otherwise, V. Komodoensis is a solitary species, coming together only for feeding and mating.

Mating season for V. Komodoensis is between May and August. Males will stand on their hind legs and wrestle each other over females. The victor will begin the mating ritual by flicking its tongue at the female’s snout, then over certain parts of her body. If the female accepts, mating will occur, with the female laying twenty to forty eggs in September. A female will dig a depression into a hole prior to laying, in which she will deposit her eggs. The female will watch over the eggs, but not over the young.

The young are about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) in weight, and about 40 centimeters (16 inches) in length. They spend most of their time in trees to protect themselves from older dragons, as well as to find prey. Young dragons are brightly colored (Mostly yellow and green), while older dragons are green-grey.

V. Komodoensis’s primary (and only) habitat is the Komodo Islands, which are just off the coast of Indonesia. There is little to no rainfall for most of the year, which is mostly governed by the monsoon rains that come annually. Temperatures range from 17-34 degrees Celsius (62.6 to 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit), with about 36% humidity.

V. Komodoensis is assumed to have been first discovered in 1910 by Dutch lieutenant J. K. H. Van Steyn van Hensbroek, who was serving as a civil administrator in the nearby city of Reo. According to the natives, he said, there were large monitor lizards living on the nearby island of Komodo. Van Steyn spent a short time there, and sent the corpse of one back to Indonesia for study. He mistakenly concluded that they had perfect vision and were deaf (V. Komodoensis can hear sounds, but not as well as humans can), and at first thought that the dragons mostly stood on hind legs. The person he sent the corpses to, P. A. Ouwens, was the one who gave V. Komodoensis its scientific name.

V. Komodoensis is considered to be a vulnerable species. Strict anti-poaching laws coupled with the creation of a national park, however, have helped the species maintain its numbers.

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