The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), also known as the Komodo monitor, is a large species of lizard found in the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar. A member of the monitor lizard family (Varanidae), it is the largest living species of lizard, growing to a maximum length of 3 metres (10 ft) in rare cases and weighing up to around 70 kilograms (150 lb). Their unusual size has been attributed to island gigantism, since no other carnivorous animals fill the niche on the islands where they live.
However, recent research suggests the large size of Komodo dragons may be better understood as representative of a relict population of very large varanid lizards that once lived across Indonesia and Australia, most of which, along with other megafauna, died out after the Pleistocene. Fossils very similar to V. komodoensis have been found in Australia dating to greater than 3.8 million years ago, and its body size remained stable on Flores, one of the handful of Indonesian islands where it is currently found, over the last 900,000 years, "a time marked by major faunal turnovers, extinction of the island's megafauna, and the arrival of early hominids by 880 ka."
As a result of their size, these lizards dominate the ecosystems in which they live. Komodo dragons hunt and ambush prey including invertebrates, birds, and mammals. Their group behaviour in hunting is exceptional in the reptile world. The diet of big Komodo dragons mainly consists of deer, though they also eat considerable amounts of carrion. Komodo dragons also occasionally attack humans in the area of West Manggarai Regency where they live in Indonesia.
Mating begins between May and August, and the eggs are laid in September. About 20 eggs are deposited in abandoned megapode nests or in a self-dug nesting hole. The eggs are incubated for seven to eight months, hatching in April, when insects are most plentiful. Young Komodo dragons are vulnerable and therefore dwell in trees, safe from predators and cannibalistic adults. They take about eight to 9 years to mature, and are estimated to live up to 30 years.
Komodo dragons were first recorded by Western scientists in 1910. Their large size and fearsome reputation make them popular zoo exhibits. In the wild, their range has contracted due to human activities, and they are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. They are protected under Indonesian law, and a national park, Komodo National Park, was founded to aid protection efforts.
The Komodo dragon is also known as the Komodo monitor or the Komodo Island monitor in scientific literature, although this is not very common. To the natives of Komodo Island, it is referred to as ora, buaya darat (land crocodile) or biawak raksasa (giant monitor).
The evolutionary development of the Komodo dragon started with the Varanus genus, which originated in Asia about 40 million years ago and migrated to Australia. Around 15 million years ago, a collision between Australia and Southeast Asia allowed the varanids to move into what is now the Indonesian archipelago, extending their range as far east as the island of Timor. The Komodo dragon was believed to have differentiated from its Australian ancestors 4 million years ago. However, recent fossil evidence from Queensland suggests the Komodo dragon evolved in Australia before spreading to Indonesia. Dramatic lowering of sea level during the last glacial period uncovered extensive stretches of continental shelf that the Komodo dragon colonized, becoming isolated in their present island range as sea levels rose afterwards.
In the wild, an adult Komodo dragon usually weighs around 70 kg (150 lb), although captive specimens often weigh more. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, an average adult male will weigh 79 to 91 kg (170 to 200 lb) and measure 2.59 m (8.5 ft), while an average female will weigh 68 to 73 kg (150 to 160 lb) and measure 2.29 m (7.5 ft). The largest verified wild specimen was 3.13 m (10.3 ft) long and weighed 166 kg (370 lb), including undigested food. The Komodo dragon has a tail as long as its body, as well as about 60 frequently replaced, serrated teeth that can measure up to 2.5 cm (1 in) in length. Its saliva is frequently blood-tinged, because its teeth are almost completely covered by gingival tissue that is naturally lacerated during feeding. This creates an ideal culture for the bacteria that live in its mouth It also has a long, yellow, deeply forked tongue.
The Komodo dragon does not have an acute sense of hearing, despite its visible earholes, and is only able to hear sounds between 400 and 2000 hertz. It was formerly thought to be deaf when a study reported no agitation in wild Komodo dragons in response to whispers, raised voices, or shouts. This was disputed when London Zoological Garden employee Joan Proctor trained a captive specimen to come out to feed at the sound of her voice, even when she could not be seen.
The Komodo dragon is able to see as far away as 300 m (980 ft), but because its retinas only contain cones, it is thought to have poor night vision. The Komodo dragon is able to see in color, but has poor visual discrimination of stationary objects
A Komodo dragon on Komodo Island uses its tongue to sample the air.
The Komodo dragon uses its tongue to detect, taste, and smell stimuli, as with many other reptiles, with the vomeronasal sense using the Jacobson's organ, rather than using the nostrils. With the help of a favorable wind and its habit of swinging its head from side to side as it walks, a Komodo dragon may be able to detect carrion from 4–9.5 km (2.5–5.9 mi) away. It only has a few taste buds in the back of its throat. Its scales, some of which are reinforced with bone, have sensory plaques connected to nerves to facilitate its sense of touch. The scales around the ears, lips, chin, and soles of the feet may have three or more sensory plaques.