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Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)

Activity Cycle

  • Ridding body of excess heat impacts behavior patterns
  • Primarily diurnal. (Range is from 4:30-23:30). Usual waking time is between 6:00 and 6:30 AM.
  • Two activity peaks: 9:30 and 15:30
  • Travel about 2 km/day (Adults may travel as much as 10 km/day).
  • Adults spend an average of 26 days searching for prey. 10-20 minutes eating. (A 50 kg female was observed to swallow a 31 kg boar in 17 minutes). 3-6 days is spent in digestive pause.
  • Activity levels are lowest in early part of dry season. At the end of the season and throughout the rainy season activity increases (probably related to weaker prey)
  • Basking = 72% of morning activity. 33% of afternoon activity
  • Shade-seeking = 22% of morning activity; 58% of afternoon activity
  • Largest Komodos spend all waking hours on the ground. Younger animals readily climb into trees to feed, rest, or escape predation
  • Sleep about 12 hours every day. Shelters are burrows, natural cavities and overhanging vegetation

Movements and dispersal

Home range

  • Factors influencing range: topography, prey density, social status, size and sex
  • Range consists of a foraging area and a scavenging area
    • Foraging area has a core area related to shelter/burrows and thermoregulatory/basking sites
  • 50% of activity occurs in core area
  • Foraging area is 5-28 times larger than core area. For hatchlings this area may be a clump of trees; for an adult the average area is 4.2 sq km
    • Scavenging area is determined by the location of dead animals and can be extremely large (young oras do not scavenge)

Communication

Social behavior

  • Komodo dragons are solitary animals, meeting only to reproduce.

Displays / visual signals:

  • No sexual displays but an aggregation of Komodos may be essential to successful breeding. Aggregations are also believed to be important in establishing and reinforcing hierarchies
  • Threat display includes loud hissing. Tail lashing and/or quivering, gaping mouth, guilar inflation, arched back
  • Appeasement: licking, ritual walking. Mouth closed (no hissing) Subdominant individual usually flees.
  • Strongly scented fecal pellets are deposited on trails and are investigated by other animals with their tongues
  • Flight/escape includes lunging and biting, scratching, and defecation Regurgitation may occur in younger animals.
  • Fighting between males often results in severe lacerations and even death.

Vocalizations

  • Hissing is one of few sounds made.
  • It is usually associated with defensive behavior and is used during feeding, during attacks and frequently by females during mating.

Olfactory signals

  • As with all snakes and lizards, many of their responses are completely dependent on chemical cues.
  • Scent plays an important role in territorial marking and while hunting

Ethogram (=behavior inventory)

  • See Auffenberg (1981: 124-127), The Komodo Monitor

Territorial Behavior

  • Foraging and scavenging areas are very large and not easily defensible so territoriality is minimal if it exists at all.
  • Dominance hierarchies are based on sex and size. This determines position at feeding sites.

Other Behaviors

Digging

  • Common activity. Komodos regularly excavate burrows, dig out megapode eggs, search for rodents, lizards and snakes.
  • Digging is done with the front feet. One leg digs repeatedly for several strokes, then the other. Hind legs are not used to throw out dirt. Lizard backs up slowly, throwing the dirt with fore limbs.

Rubbing

  • Smaller Komodos rub their bodies on the ground near or in carrion. Most rub themselves in hair or intestinal contents.
  • Rubbing behavior not practiced by adults.

Regulating body temperature

  • All varanids are ectotherms. (Heat their bodies by basking and absorbing energy from the sun or warm surfaces. Cool themselves by seeking shade, or burrowing
  • "Gular fluttering" or "hyoid panting" is used only in cases of extreme overheating. (Mouth is held open and gular region of throat is inflated with air. Air is expelled in fluttering fashion).
  • Dig dens to protect themselves from the heat of the sun. They may also occupy thickets or burrows at night to regulate their temperature
  • Optimal body temperatures do not differ significantly from most other reptiles but deep body temperatures tend to remain more uniform than any other reptile.
  • Body temperatures of individuals drop to as low as 20 degrees Centigrade at night and can reach above 40 degrees Centigrade during the day.
  • Drinking is similar to snakes: immerse snout to the eyes, suck up water then raise head and allow water to run down throat. Most manage without free water from April through December.

Interspecies Interactions

(Auffenberg, 1981)

  • In addition to Komodo dragons, at least 190 species of terrestrial animals co-habit the Indonesian islands
  • Feral dogs, man and medium Komodos compete for the same major resouces (deer & boar)
  • Varanus salvator coexists on only one island and avoid contact with the larger Komodo
  • Smaller animals: Snakes, lizards, and rats utilize Komodo burrows for shelter.

Locomotion

General

  • Quadrupedal, plantigrade.
  • Body, head, and tail are undulated gently from side to side in walking rhythm. Normal speed 4.8 km/hr (3 mi/hr)
  • When running body and tail are held fairly rigid. Tail is off the ground. Hind feet move in wide lateral arc. 14-18.5 km/hr over short distance (8.7-11 mi/hr)

Swimming

  • Most monitors are good swimmers. Diving and swimming under water is effective escape behavior.
  • Longest known swim: between the islands of Komodo and Nusa Mbarapu, a distance of at least 450 m. (a bit over 1/4 mile)

Tree climbing

  • At young ages dragons are fairly good but cautious climbers.
  • They lose their skill as they get older and heavier.
  • Only very young lizards jump from branch to branch.

Tongue Flick

a komodo dragon flicking tongue

Komodo dragons use their sense of smell to detect territory boundaries of other dragons and to track wounded prey.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Auffenberg (1978, 1981)
Bennett (1998)
Burden (1927)
Lange (1989)
Lutz & Lutz (1991)

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