Female Trouble: For Komodo Dragons, Rife Inequalities between the Sexes [Slide Show]
New research reveals female Komodo dragons live half as long as males, most likely due to their extreme maternal duties, such as fighting off cannibalistic males—a scenario that, when coupled with anthropogenic threats, has implications for the species's survival
Credits: Rachel Nuwer
FALLEN GIANT: Komodo dragons are the islands' apex predator, but their own prey sometimes defeats them. Here a male dragon sits helplessly in a streambed where, days before, he tried to ambush a water buffalo. The large ungulate kicked out the dragon's eyes, rendering him blind. The park personnel predict the dragon will succumb to his injury and perhaps be cannibalized.
NOT KID-FRIENDLY: Only a few hatchlings at most from each Komodo dragon nest survive. For the first few years of their lives young dragons spend most of their time hiding from the adults in trees, where they sustain themselves on birds, insects and small lizards. Juvenile dragons make up around 10 percent of the adult dragons' diets (including that of their once-protective mother), so the young reptiles have good reason to fear their parents. When they do venture down from the trees, they often roll in fecal matter to mask their scent and/or hide in the intestinal cavity of eviscerated animal corpses to escape notice.
MOTHER DRAGON: A soon-to-be mother dragon guards her buried eggs. Female dragons lay around 20 eggs and then tirelessly protect their nests against hungry males for several months. New research suggests that this recurring ordeal may account for the gross size and life span differences between males and females, with males living nearly twice as long and weighing around three times as much as their reproductively burdened counterparts.
AMBUSH ALERT: Only an alert passerby would spot this dragon snoozing under a tree. Despite their large size, Komodo dragons are skilled stalkers and naturally blend in with the island landscape. Local villagers know they must be cautious when traversing the predator-infested environment, but even so, attacks by ora do occur. In 2007 a dragon ambushed and killed a local eight-year-old boy, for example, and in 2009 a fisherman was mauled to death by two dragons while trespassing on Komodo Island in search of fruit.
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A VICTIM'S WARNING: Around Rinca Island, bones and skulls dot the landscape like signposts, marking the spot of past dragon dinners. Here a water buffalo skull reminds visitors to be wary of their surroundings.
BATHE AT YOUR OWN RISK: A wild water buffalo wallows in one of the few remaining pockets of water left on Rinca Island at the height of the dry season in September. One of the dragons' favorite spots to ambush prey is near watering holes or streams.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Mr. Safiana, a local guide who grew up in Komodo National Park, learned English by practicing with tourists. He encourages guests to join him on a long trek around Rinca Island's interior, which takes visitors through each of the islands' biomes and boasts the most spectacular views and best wildlife-spotting opportunities. "If visitors came this far, they should stay for more than just 30 minutes," he says. "But most just get off the boat, take a photo of the ora [dragons] and then go to the café."
CONSERVATION FOR ALL: Fewer tourists visit Rinca Island than its better-known neighbor, Komodo Island. Park staff claim that Rinca is a more ideal location for spotting dragons and other wildlife, however, because there is less human disturbance. Wild water buffalo, boar, cobra, Timor deer, horses and macaques are just a few of the species found on Rinca's 197-square-kilometer terrain of open savanna and tropical lowland forest.
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SEPTIC SALIVA: A male Komodo dragon basks by a streambed, hoping for thirsty victims to wander its way. Rather than taking down prey on the spot, as would a lion or crocodile, Komodo dragons instead nip their victims on the foot or torso, then let their bacteria-laden saliva do the work for them. After several days spent with a virulent cocktail of Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus and other pathogens coursing through its veins, even the largest beast succumbs to infection. The dragons can track their prey up to 10 kilometers by sense of smell, and the delectable scent of decay alerts them when their meal is sufficiently subdued for the feast to begin—often while the animal is still alive.
LOH BUAYA WELCOMES YOU: Visitors dock at Loh Buaya dock, the park's access point on Rinca Island. Boat captains and park guides lounge around, waiting for potential fares.
HERE THERE BE DRAGONS: Several thousand Komodo dragons dwell on a cluster of five volcanic islands in eastern Indonesia—the only place in the world the animals inhabit. In 1980 conservationists and officials founded Komodo National Park to protect the dragons, which are the world's largest lizards. The national park's boundaries encompass four of the islands, and around 4,000 people currently live within its confines. Here on Rinca Island, Komodo dragons congregate outside the park headquarters' kitchen in pursuit of a tasty, free meal.
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