60-Second Science

Komodo Dragons' Skillful Skulls

Komodo Dragons' powerful neck muscles generate huge forces when attacking prey. Their lightweight skulls can handle the forces thanks to a strong, "space-frame" structure. Steve Mirsky reports.

Podcast Transcript: When I got into a cage with a Komodo Dragon almost 10 years ago for a story, I had no idea that its skull was so special.  Neither did scientists until now.  But a report in the Journal of Anatomy reveals that the world’s largest living lizard has a remarkable, space-frame skull.  Space frame refers to a light, rigid structure with interlocking struts that can handle big loads.  The shape of the skull bones and the arrangement of bones of different strengths is the key.  The researchers employed a technique called Finite Element Analysis, which is usually used to analyze trains or planes.  But in this case it let them reverse engineer the Komodo to study the mechanical forces that the skull is subject to.

As opposed to, say, an alligator, the dragon has a pretty wimpy bite.  So rather than clamp down on its victims, it yanks off chunks of meat, a move powered by incredibly strong neck muscles.  And made possible by that space-frame skull able to handle the huge forces involved.  Our March 1999 article on Komodos is available at

—Steve Mirsky

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