Komodo Dragons Don’t Kill The Way You Might Think They Do

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, January 15, 2014
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“If the lion and dragon fight, they will both die.” —Tadashi Adachi

In A Nutshell

The 3 meter (10 ft), 100 kilogram (220 lb) Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world. It’s certainly deadly, but for years, scientists believed their powerful bite would instantly kill smaller prey, and that bacteria in their mouths would weaken larger prey with a deadly infection. As it turns out, your domestic cat has a stronger bite than a Komodo dragon, and the Komodos aren’t dirty—they’re venomous.

The Whole Bushel

First, a recap on the myths. Komodo dragons are massive lizards that are well known to be capable of taking down large prey like water buffalo. In 1969, American biologist Walter Auffenberg spent years living near and observing the Komodo dragons in their native habitats; later he published a book with his findings, including the idea that the mouths of the Komodo dragons contained so much bacteria that bite wounds would infect their prey with a very fast-moving infection. He determined this by watching the way they killed their prey; they would bite, and if the animal was too big to bring down in a single strike, it would wander off, grow gradually weaker and weaker, then collapse.

But the bacteria theory just isn’t true. With the help of three zoos in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Houston, researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine examined samples of the saliva of Komodo dragons—and found nothing. There was no deadly bacteria in their mouths, and there were even fewer microbes than were found in the saliva of other carnivores, like the lion. There was bacteria found, but certainly nothing virulent and deadly, as would be necessitated by the mythos around the giant lizards.

But researchers at the University of Melbourne have also discovered that there is more going on than just biting when a Komodo brings down a giant piece of prey. The Komodo dragon has venom glands, and they produce a toxin that lowers blood pressure and essentially infects their target with a sort of hemophilia. With thinner blood, a neutralization of a clotting agent, and the massive bite wounds, an animal that’s been bitten simply bleeds out rather than dying from a foreign infection.

And that brings us to the second misconception about the way a Komodo dragon hunts. It’s often thought that they have powerful jaws—they’re successfully taking on prey that’s much larger than them, after all.

But that’s far from the truth, as researchers from Australia’s University of South Wales have found. The Komodo dragon actually has very low bite force—they compare it to the bite force generated by the common domestic cat.

What makes the Komodo’s bite so effective isn’t how strong it is, it’s how their jaws and skull are formed. Their skulls are actually very lightweight, made up of spongy, elastic bone. Much like a snake, the Komodo can open its mouth very, very wide to increase bite radius, allowing the maximum amount of damage to be done by their sharp, serrated teeth. The strong parts are in the Komodo’s neck; its massive neck muscles help control prey and maneuver the lizard’s head, allowing it to open massive wounds.

The huge bite radius, sharp teeth, and critical wounds, coupled with the blood-thinning venom, mean that the already large lizard can take down much larger prey by attacking quickly, administering fatal wounds, and then simply waiting for the prey to bleed out. It’s a method that minimizes contact with the prey and lowers any chances of the lizard getting hurt. It’s called “inertia killing,” and it’s now thought that perhaps it’s a method that large, carnivorous dinosaurs also used.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: The Myth of the Komodo Dragon’s Dirty Mouth
National Geographic: Komodo Dragon’s Bite Is ‘Weaker Than a House Cat’s’
CNN: Komodo dragons kill with venom, not bacteria, study says

  • Actuator

    Why is the Discovery Channel still sticking with the deadly-microbes-in-the-mouth theory? The channel already sounds outdated enough, with its weird ancient alien & haunted story myths.

    • Nathaniel A.

      I think the History Channel is more known for Ancient Aliens, seeing as they have the show.

      • mtkaod

        I am not saying that it is Aliens I am just asking the question if Aliens gave the Komodo Dragon their poision.

      • TheLesserWeevil

        When did the History channel stop showing actual history and switch to aliens and scripted pawn shop shows?

        • Nathaniel A.

          I know I miss their documentaries so much.

    • inconspicuous detective

      haunted is something totally different. don’t even go there.

  • Andy West

    the one in the last James Bond film, Skinfull, the Comodore dragon strangles the henchman to death.

  • Quest

    It might be true. Many new species are still discovering but I know it’s not a new species. It’s true that animals can evolve quicker due to their adapt of nature and its possible to have some aliens’ DNA in it. Even though we have it too. Mostly, animals have clean mouths cuz of saliva

    • Quest

      It’s funny, in Cancun I used to drag their tails and they would run away fast. Thanks goodness, it didn’t bit me although

  • lee

    Scary things these dragons.

  • axnyslie

    Don’t kid yourself, Jimmy. If a Komodo Dragon ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about!

    • Andy West

      Even ‘Crazy Ed’?

  • Anthony Burroughs

    There is a video (I believe on YouTube) that shows a fairly large group of Komodo dragons hunting down a huge water or cape buffalo… After one of the dragons finally bites it the camera crew then proceeds to follow the weakened buffalo throughout the entire hunt where the Komodo dragons are never more than a few feet behind it… Just patiently following and waiting for the buffalo to slowly weaken until it can no longer walk. It eventually collapses into a shallow puddle of mud and that’s when then the group of dragons proceed to start eating it while it is still alive and no longer able to put up a fight. It’s actually kind of a sad video but that’s nature for ya.

  • VerniceRodman

    I am so shocked when this was hearing the report for the Dragon did not kill the anyone else.
    http://goarticles.com/article/Lose-Pounds-In-An-Effective-Manner/8260411/

  • Pawesl

    I thought this was common knowledge.