Monday, March 23, 2015

Komodo Dragons: Their Bite is Worse than Their Bark (A Guest Post)

By Shelly Sonsalla


Komodo Dragon.
Image by Arturo de Frias Marques on Wikimedia.
Komodo dragons are the world’s largest living lizard and can be found only on select islands in the Indonesian archipelago. These massive lizards can grow to be 10 feet in length and up to 150 pounds! Their natural prey includes wild boars, deer, and water buffalo—animals which may outweigh them by several hundred pounds. So how does a lizard, even such a large one, manage to take down prey so much larger than them? The answer lies in their bite.

Komodo dragons’ mouths are a complex interplay of force, toxins, and bacteria. A study by Brian Fry and his colleagues at the Howard Florey Institute in Australia determined the amount of force that a komodo dragon could generate with its bite. What did they find the answer to be? Not much. They found that a komodo dragon’s bite was 6.5 times less than that of an Australian saltwater crocodile. That’s comparable to a 3.5 pound fennec fox! Obviously, this means that the komodo dragon couldn’t possibly bring down such large prey by strength alone. Luckily for them, there are two more factors at play.

Size comparison between a komodo dragon and a fennec fox.
Computer Rendered by Michelle Sonsalla.

The first is venom secreted by a number of venom glands found on the lower jaw. The amount of venom that can be held in these glands totals less than half a teaspoon! This venom has a number of properties meant to kill its prey, properties which prevent the prey’s blood from coagulating and cause painful cramping in the intestines, paralysis, and loss of consciousness. These effects alone would be enough to bring down most prey, but in case they aren’t, there is a final piece of the puzzle—bacteria.

All living things have a multitude of bacteria and fungi that are naturally present on their skin and in their digestive system, but the bacteria found in the mouths of komodo dragons are specialized. According to Joel Montgomery, a researcher at the University of Texas at Arlington, there are 54 species of bacteria found in the mouths of komodo dragons which cause illness and 1 species which has been found to be lethal to mice. These bacteria enter the prey’s bloodstream through its bite and work to infect the creature slowly, causing severe infection within days or weeks.

All three factors of a komodo dragon’s bite work together to take down its prey efficiently and effectively. The bite, though weak, is enough to open the skin and allow the venom and bacteria into the prey’s bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the venom works to weaken the animal, which in turn allows the bacteria to gain a foothold to infect, and eventually kill, the victim. These factors allow this large, magnificent lizard, this dragon among beasts, to take down prey much larger than themselves and have helped them survive the extinction of the past’s other great lizards.


References:

Christiansen P, & Wroe S (2007). Bite forces and evolutionary adaptations to feeding ecology in carnivores. Ecology, 88 (2), 347-58 PMID: 17479753

Fry, B., Wroe, S., Teeuwisse, W., van Osch, M., Moreno, K., Ingle, J., McHenry, C., Ferrara, T., Clausen, P., Scheib, H., Winter, K., Greisman, L., Roelants, K., van der Weerd, L., Clemente, C., Giannakis, E., Hodgson, W., Luz, S., Martelli, P., Krishnasamy, K., Kochva, E., Kwok, H., Scanlon, D., Karas, J., Citron, D., Goldstein, E., Mcnaughtan, J., & Norman, J. (2009). A central role for venom in predation by Varanus komodoensis (Komodo Dragon) and the extinct giant Varanus (Megalania) priscus Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (22), 8969-8974 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810883106

Merchant, M., Henry, D., Falconi, R., Muscher, B., & Bryja, J. (2013). Antibacterial activities of serum from the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) Microbiology Research, 4 (1) DOI: 10.4081/mr.2013.e4

Montgomery JM, Gillespie D, Sastrawan P, Fredeking TM, & Stewart GL (2002). Aerobic salivary bacteria in wild and captive Komodo dragons. Journal of wildlife diseases, 38 (3), 545-51 PMID: 12238371

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