Monday, April 24, 2006

Animal of the Week April 24, 2006 -- George and the Komodo

1. For not acknowledging the wonderful source journal Nature for AOTW April 10 (Tiktaalik roseae)
2. For not warning y'all that I'd take Easter Monday off... sorry

Yesterday was the day of St George, England's patron saint, I marked the day by having a lie in, buying some tomato plants, some breadmaking, and listening to folk music on Radio 3. And today I extend the festivities by choosing as the animal of the week the dragon.... er, Varanus komodoensis (Komodo dragon) that is!

The fire-breathing dragon that crusader George slayed held the pagan people of some distant land to ransom by taking up residence in the spring from whence they obtained their water. To get the dragon to move on, the local monarch had to give up his daughter, but just as the dragon was about to eat the princess, valiant George turned up and showed the dragon what for with his lance. Everyone was so glad for what George had done they converted to Christianity.

Komodo dragons can't breath fire, don't much care to hold wells to ransom, and aren't mythical allegories for Satan; however, they can be quite terrifying—weighing over 160 kg and growing to over 3·5 m long they are the largest lizards in the whole world (note, crocodiles, alligators, and turtles are not lizards). These outsize monitor lizards are the top predators on the Indonesian islands of Flores, Rintja, Padar, and Komodo where they eat anything that moves including goats, horses, buffalo, other komodo dragons, and sometimes people. Before people reached these islands wiping out native fauna and bringing in the smorgasbord listed above, Komodo dragons' diets probably comprised giant rats, dwarf elephants, and er, dwarf proto-humans.

Komodo dragons do enjoy carrion, but they are also well-equipped hunters, adept at both ambush and the chase. Their best trick though is having over 50 species of bacteria in their saliva, which means that all they need to do is give a prey animal a little nip and the victim will rapidly be overcome by septicaemia. Lovely!

In this picture a komodo dragon is receiving acupuncture... perhaps the whole George-dragon-lance story is a misunderstanding.


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