Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Komodo Dragon Myth Slain

By Stephen Luntz

One of the best-known stories about Komodo dragons has been proven false, yet it has been surprisingly hard to gain acceptance for the new evidence.

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For many years it has been believed that Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizard, kill their larger prey through a unique mechanism. The story goes that the dragons have mouths full of bacteria, and that when they bite an animal too large to bring down, such as a water buffalo, the bacteria turn the wound septic, allowing the dragon its feed.

When University of Queensland biologist A/Prof Bryan Fry came to the dragon’s habitat to determine whether it had venom (AS, Jan/Feb 2006, p.6), he noticed water buffalo standing in waterholes black with their own sewage. “My first thought was: I wouldn’t want to go into that with a cut leg,” says Fry.

This caused Fry to wonder: were the bacteria that kill the buffalo coming from the dragon’s mouth, or the water in which they were standing? Fry says there had only been two studies of the dragon’s mouth bacteria. “They were by the same group, none of whom were microbiologists. You find the same sort of bacteria in the mouth of a Tassie devil or lion.”

The buffalo are used to living in large freshwater marshes with ecosystem cleaning mechanisms. Since being imported to islands like Komodo 300 years ago, the buffalo have followed their instincts when attacked by a dragon, which is to go and stand in water. Unfortunately the only water bodies are small ponds filled with the faeces of other buffalo. “It is when the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.