Episode 186 – Komodo Dragon: A Toxic Debate

“…and today we’re talking about the closest thing to a traditional fire breathing dragon we’re going to get.”

Reptilians once dominated the food chain as the largest animals in their ecosystems until some natural checks and balances relegated them to smaller bodies that were better at sneaking under rocks and bushes. But nature’s memo failed to reach one island in Oceania. The Komodo dragon is a giant that lives at the top of their ecosystem, capable of taking down even large prey animals. But these unique lizards may have a tool up their sleeve besides their size. But pairing a high weight class with some unique talents is the best way to rule in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.  

Description of the Komodo Dragon

  • The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard alive today.
  • And, in fact, it looks like a giant version of the lizards you might find sunning themselves on your front porch.
  • They have long bodies and necks with short legs tipped with sharp claws for digging and tearing. 
  • Their tales are thick and muscular like a crocodile’s and end at a point for maximum whipping potential.
  • Their heads look like they were the direct inspiration for Godzilla with rounded snouts, beady black eyes, and a wide mouth filled with sharp, serrated teeth and a forked tongue that I wish Grima Wormtongue had.
    • Just like the tuatara, the Komodo dragon also has a third eye (the pineal eye) to potentially sense certain types of light. But this one is virtually invisible.
  • Their black/grey/rust-colored skin is made up of these hardened scales called osteoderms. As the name suggests, it has bone skin. The scales are reinforced with tiny bones.
    • These scales appear during adulthood and grow harder with age like a fine whiskey or Sam Elliot

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro!

  1. Texel Sheep
  2. Giant Panda
  3. Gila monster
  4. Giraffe

Length

  • 2.59 m (8.5 ft)
  • How many komodo dragons go into the length of the longest ever monster truck?
  • Hint: The truck is called the Sin City Hustler and it boasts a 750-hp engine. It was built by Brad and Jen Campbell to be a novel limousine for tourists in Las Vegas.
  • 3.7 komodo dragons. The truck is 9.8 m (32 ft) long.

Weight

  • 70 kg (150 lb)
  • How many Komodo dragons go into the combined weight of soldiers treated by Marie Curie’s mobile radiology units (called petites Curies) in World War I.
    Hint: Marie Curie is the first woman to receive a nobel prize and the only woman to have the prize in two different fields. During the first world war she realized that soldiers needed surgery as soon as possible and pioneered field surgical centers with X-ray machines. Assume the soldiers weighed 170 pounds. 
  • 1,133,333 komodo dragons. The combined weight of a million soldiers is around 170,000,000 pounds.

Komodo Dragon Fast Facts

  • Range: the islands of Indonesia, particularly Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang. 
  • Diet: They mainly eat a species of Indonesian deer called Javan Rusa. They also will eat just about any scavenged corpse they find and will sometimes even eat the young of other dragons. They’ll also eat eggs, birds, monkeys, goats, boars, and even large animals like horses and water buffalo.
  • Behavior: 
    • They can live for up to 30 years
    • It will eat up to 80% of its body weight in one meal and then sits in the sun to digest.
      • They have a slow metabolism which allows them to eat as little as once a month, but they need to warm up or the food will rot in their stomachs and poison them (again, like crocodiles in winter)
    • They can be aggressive toward humans and have fatally wounded or possibly eaten several people according to reports.
  • Under certain circumstances where females are isolated, they can actually reproduce asexually – much like the mourning gecko.
    • So they can lay eggs without knocking any boots. 
    • This is called parthenogenesis and only males are produced in this way.

Major Fact: Toxic Drool

Komodo dragons are the largest lizards in the world. They’re thought to reach that size because of something called insular gigantism, which is when an isolated species grows larger than their wider-world kin.

Their large size makes them unable to sustain high speeds for long, but they are built for ambush. Dragons wait at ambush sites and spring on victims and overwhelm them with lacerating bites. 

In most cases, they kill prey in 30 minutes. In some cases, larger prey can shake off a dragon and get away. But reports say that escaped prey often dies within a few days, and then they are swarmed by hungry dragons.

You may have heard komodo dragons can do this because their bite is toxic. Legend has it that a komodo dragon’s saliva contains deadly bacteria that comes from the rotting chunks of flesh in their teeth from former meals. Conventional wisdom suggests that a single bite can make an animal fatally sick from this bacteria. 

But that’s not true.  

Some studies did find dangerous bacteria in komodo mouths, but it probably isn’t due to poor oral hygiene. Dragons apparently spend a solid 15 minutes cleaning their mouths after a meal. They will lick their lips and rub their face on dried leaves to remove excess blood and meat.

So if that’s true, why does wounded prey die?

One of the simplest explanations is that they die from infected wounds because animals with open wounds often die from infections. Komodos attack prey by inflicting lacerations from bite, not by efficiently killing blows like lions or leopards. These deep wounds typically cause animals to bleed out, but if not, it could cause infections. CErtain prey, like water buffalo, run to water when threatened. Running into unclean water with open wounds can cause them to become infected. 

However, there is another potential explanation. 

In 2005, researcher Bryan Fry found venom genes in Komodo dragons, and then in 2009 an MRI on a dragon skull found glands that could contain venom. They later took the gland out of a sick komodo and found that it contained venom proteins that could stop blood clotting and lower blood pressure. This could increase the speed an animal bleeds to death, making the komodo at least slightly venomous. 

But critics of these findings suggest that there are many purposes these proteins could serve in a reptile mouth, and may not be used as a venom. 

Ending: So enjoy sunny days, keep your toxic spit to yourself, and only swallow your prey whole if you have a special tongue lung tube like the Komodo dragon here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 174 – Shield-Tailed Agama: The Aegis Posterior

“…and today we’re talking about a spike-covered tush that lives out in the bush. But more on that later.” 

The subterranean lifestyle has it’s benefits and many small animals make their beds below the earth. From the sleeping cicada to the idle fox, the shelter of a sand and soil roof provides protection from predatory prowlers. But there’s one flaw in this tactic. What if someone or something can fit in your hiding place? The shield-tailed agama isn’t willing to leave any attack unprepared for. He’s developed an interesting way to enter dreamland free of the fear of tunnel-going hunters. But covering all your bases is one way to beat insomnia in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 169 – Tuatara: This is Not a Lizard

“…and today we’re talking about something that looks just like an iguana but it’s apparently not a lizard at all.”

Scattered along the northern coast of New Zealand’s north island is a living fossil that was thought to be extinct: the tuatara. A laid-back lizard with a lazy lifestyle, the tuatara spends most of its time getting some sweet vitamin D in the sun and using the introspective sight of its peculiar third eye. But having insight can help with more than just character development here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 164 – Sailfin Dragon Lizard: The Icarus Iguana

“…and today we’re talking about a modern day dinosaur with a name to match. But more on that later.”

Lizards sometimes retain primordial qualities. To look at them, you may see the scaly faces of ages long gone. The sailfin dragon lizard has a look that matches it’s fantastical name. But the dinosaur-esque nature of this reptile doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a few new tricks in it’s arsenal. This dragon makes its home in near the water, and he brings some interesting adaptations to the taxonomic table. Improving on the tried and reptile design might be the best option for this aqua-dragon in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 150 – Spider-Tailed Horned Viper: The Crafty Serpent

“And today we’re talking about something we were supposed to talk about a few weeks ago but we goofed and now we’re talking about it now. More on that now.”

Hunters have all kinds of methods to help catch their prey. There’s ambushing, stalking, and brute force. But one of the most clever ways may be luring. Snakes are usually predators of the ambush varieties, though they’ll engage in a stalking or two. But one dessert viper has been known to employ a lure that would make the most experienced fishermen blush. But anatomical trickery may be the key to this serpent’s survival in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Episode 144 – Horned Viper: The Vied Viper

“…and today we’re talking about an animal that has adapted to a legless lifestyle in an arid region. But more on that later.”

Cursed to crawl on their bellies, snakes have taken to the limbless life with seemingly listless languid movement. But these apparently listless articulations of their sinuous bodies, are done with great intention. Snakes are able to slither almost everywhere. Without claws, legs, or arms that can climb trees, slide across the ground, and some can even glide on the air. But the horned viper is posed with a particular challenge in the form of soft shifting sand. But laudable locomotion is an interesting way a serpent can make its way through Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 

Episode 132 – Water Anole: Squamata in the Wata

“Thank you to Casy for our new theme song. Hear more of Casy’s music by searching Casy Michelle on Youtube. Today we’re talking about a familiar looking lizard with an unfamiliar amazing ability!”

From the time of Alexander the Great, air breathers have been fascinated by the world beneath the waves. And humans aren’t the only ones to figure out how to hang out underwater. The water anole uses a special technique to stay hidden when predators come sniffing that scientists still haven’t entirely figured out yet. But being elusive, mysterious, and resourceful is the name of the survival game here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.