12 Surprising Facts About Komodo Dragons

These giant lizards are fast and dangerous but also surprisingly playful

facts about komodo dragons

Treehugger / Catherine Song

The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard living on Earth today, growing up to 10 feet long and weighing 150 pounds or more. Although it might look like a mini version of the fictional dragons you see in movies, this living fossil doesn't fly or breathe fire. It does, however, have some scary traits, including venomous fangs, speed, and armored skin.

Here are 12 reasons why these dragons don't need flight or fire to be worthy of our awe and admiration.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Komodo dragon
  • Scientific NameVaranus komodoensis
  • Average Lifespan in the Wild: 50 years
  • Average Lifespan in Captivity: 9 years
  • IUCN Red List Status: Endangered
  • Current Population: 1,383 mature individuals

1. Komodo Dragons Are Originally From Australia

While famous for being from the Indonesian island of Komodo and surrounding islands, the Komodo dragon was first discovered in Australia. According to fossil records, Komodo dragons migrated from their native island to Indonesia around 900,000 years ago, when they arrived on the island of Flores.

As researchers noted in a 2009 study, Komodo dragons may have disappeared from Australia around 50,000 years ago, a disappearance that would have roughly coincided with the arrival of humans to the continent.

2. They're Venomous

Close-up of Komodo dragon with mouth open, oozing saliva

Michael Dunning / Getty Images

It was long believed that the thing making a Komodo dragon's bite so deadly was the amount of bacteria in its mouth. The scavenger beasts are constantly eating rotting flesh that would infect and kill any victim.

The record was eventually set straight in 2009 by Bryan Fry, a venom researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, who found the Komodo dragon to be one of the few venomous lizards on the planet. Unlike a snake, which injects venom into a victim through its sharp fangs, a Komodo dragon's venom seeps into large wounds it makes on its prey. The animal may escape the grip of the dragon, but it won't escape the deadly venom. The Komodo dragon trails behind its dying victims with its keen sense of smell.

3. They Can Take Down Enormous Prey

Komodo dragons are massive animals, and they can take down animals as large as wild boar, deer, and water buffalo. When now-extinct dwarfed elephants roamed the islands during the Pleistocene, fossil records indicate that they were able to take them down, too.

To catch their prey, these reptiles use an ambush strategy. Often able to blend in with the drab surroundings of their home island, they'll lie in wait for an unsuspecting animal to pass by, then sprint into action, delivering a venomous bite.

4. Komodo Dragons Have a Permanent Suit of Armor

Low-angle view of Komodo dragon walking with tongue out

USO / Getty Images

The Komodo dragon's exterior is composed of thousands of tiny bones under the skin. These bone deposits are called osteoderms, and they are not born with them. Rather, the deposits develop over a Komodo dragon's lifetime like the rings of a tree.

Being tertiary predators, you wouldn't think the giant lizards would need this sort of built-in suit of armor for protection. Truth is, Komodo dragons will attack and kill anything that crosses their path, including members of their own species. They have skin made of bone deposits to protect them from each other.

5. They're Incredibly Agile for Reptiles

Most reptiles are limited in their aerobic capacity, but Komodo dragons are an exception, thanks to a genetic adaptation that researchers discovered when they sequenced the animal's genome. The findings showed that these creatures can achieve a metabolism that's more like that of a mammal, which is beneficial when it comes to hunting prey.

Scientists found changes involving mitochondria, which are the steam engines of the cell. Much like a digestive tract, mitochondria take in nutrients and provide fuel for the cell. This is doubly important for muscle cells, which Komodo dragons have in spades. This also explains what's behind the creatures' unlikely bursts of speed and endurance. A Komodo dragon can run 13 mph in an all-out sprint.

6. They Can Eat 80% of Their Weight in One Sitting

Three Komodo dragons feasting on a bloody carcass

USO / Getty Images

The appetite of a Komodo dragon matches its size. These lizards are capable of eating as much as 80% of their own body weight at once. How? Big meals and slow digestion prompt Komodo dragons to lounge in the sun after eating. The heat helps keep their digestion process working. After they digest, they will regurgitate what is known as a gastric pellet. Similar to owl pellets, a gastric pellet contains horns, hair, teeth, and other bits of prey that can't be digested.

Because their metabolism is fairly slow and they can pound down so much in a single sitting, Komodo dragons can survive on as little as one meal a month.

7. Komodo Dragons Are Notorious Grave Robbers

Komodo dragons don't always (or even often) hunt for their meals. Instead, they eat a lot of carrion. Their noses can detect a carcass as far as six miles away.

Unfortunately for humans living among the dragons, that means they're a threat to recently buried people. Because of their tendency to grave rob, the folks of Komodo have stopped burying their dead in sandy ground and now exclusively bury in clay soil. They'll often add a pile of rocks on top of the burial for good measure.

8. They Can Reproduce Asexually

As if these ancient beasts didn't remind you of "Jurassic Park" enough already, their peculiar reproductive behavior harkens back to something highlighted in the film as well. In 2006, researchers verified that female Komodo dragons can reproduce asexually through a process called parthenogenesis. When no males are present, females can still lay a viable clutch of eggs.

Female dragons from two London zoos, both kept in solitary conditions, provided eggs for a genetic analysis that found no indication of male fertilization. Indeed, the female dragons played the roles of both mother and father in the conception.

While parthenogenesis occurs in some 70 species around the world, this was the first time it had been confirmed in Komodo dragons.

9. They Sometimes Eat Their Own Young

Sometimes—usually when food is scarce—Komodo dragons will feed on hatchlings of their own species. It's for this reason that young Komodo dragons spend ample time up in trees. They have the claws for it, but over time, they become too heavy for climbing.

Young Kimodo dragons also often roll in fecal matter, the Smithsonian National Zoo says, "assuming a scent that the large dragons are programmed to avoid." Hatchlings make up a reported 10% of adult Komodo dragons' diets.

10. They Have Sharklike Teeth

Komodo dragon with mouth open, exposing gums

Herianus Herianus / EyeEm / Getty Images

Komodo dragons have 60 teeth, the highest number a reptile can have. Their not-so-pearly whites are regularly compared to that of a shark's because they're so razor sharp and have the unique serrated morphology that helps them cut through flesh. These teeth also play a key role in the lizards' ability to poison their prey.

Now, if you've ever seen a Komodo dragon with its big, scary mouth agape, you might wonder: Where exactly are these notorious teeth? Their gums are, in fact, so thick that they create a toothless facade. Don't be fooled—a Komodo dragon could take down almost any animal with just one bite.

11. They're Surprisingly Playful

On the flip side of their ferocious, cannibalistic, grave-robbing reputation is a softer side to Komodo dragons. These creatures—like any, really—apparently like to play.

Captive individuals have been observed playing with shovels, shoes, and even frisbees. The way the individuals interact with the objects is without aggression or food motivation and can therefore be considered play. Just watch a Komodo dragon engage in a friendly game of tug-of-war and you might just find the deadly beast kind of endearing.

12. Komodo Dragons Are Endangered

Since being discovered in Australia four million years ago, wild Komodo dragons have disappeared from all but a few isolated islands: Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, Gili Dasami, and Flores. The animal—said to be the closest living relative to dinosaurs—is now classed as endangered by the IUCN. There are believed to be fewer than 1,400 mature individuals living in the wild today.

The Flores population is declining mostly due to habitat loss and "loss of natural prey to human hunters," the IUCN says. "The major drivers of habitat loss and fragmentation in this area are subsistence farming and altered fire regimes, and there may also be human-animal conflict over livestock to the north central Flores subpopulation."

The good news is that Komodo dragons living outside of Flores, within Komodo National Park, are protected and not facing any severe threats at this time.

Save the Komodo Dragon

  • Never buy skins or other products made from Komodo dragons. Commercial trade of live specimens, skins, or other parts is illegal under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but some poaching and smuggling does still take place.
  • Support conservation organizations working to protect Komodo dragons, such as the Komodo Survival Program.
  • If visiting Komodo National Park to get a glimpse of these spectacular creatures up close, do so responsibly. The government has threatened to close Komodo island before due to tourism's negative impacts on the dragon population. Keep your distance and do your research to find an ethical, sustainable tour operator.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • Do Komodo dragons eat humans?

    Let's get one thing straight: Komodo dragons will eat anything that has—or once had—a heartbeat, and that includes humans. They have been known to dig the deceased out of graves and even bite live humans. Between 1974 and 2012, a reported 24 people were attacked by Komodo dragons, and five of them died.

  • Is Komodo dragon drool poisonous?

    You've probably seen photos of the Komodo dragon with saliva spilling out of its open mouth. They are known to be prodigious droolers, and their spit contains 54 disease-containing pathogens. For many reasons, you certainly do not want to be drooled on by a Komodo dragon.

  • What eats Komodo dragons?

    Komodo dragons are tertiary predators, which means they have no natural predators of other species. However, they are cannibals and have been known to prey on each other.

View Article Sources
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  2. Hocknull, Scott A., Philip J. Piper, Gert D. van den Bergh, Rokus Awe Due, Michael J. Morwood, and Iwan Kurniawan. "Dragon's Paradise Lost: Palaeobiogeography, Evolution and Extinction of the Largest-Ever Terrestrial Lizards (Varanidae)." PLOS One. 2009.

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  4. Lind, Abigail L. "Genome of the Komodo dragon reveals adaptations in the cardiovascular and chemosensory systems of monitor lizards." Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2019.

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  6. Watts, Phillip C., Kevin R. Buley, Stephanie Sanderson, Wayne Boardman, Claudio Ciofi, and Richard Gibson. "Parthenogenesis in Komodo dragons." Nature. 2006.

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  8. Montgomery, Joel M., Don Gillespie, Putra Sastrawan, Terry M. Fredeking, and George L. Stewart. "Aerobic Salivary Bacteria in Wild and Captive Komodo Dragons." Journal of Wildlife Diseases. 2002.