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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 Komodos 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, gular inflation, and arched back. 
    • Subdominant individual usually flees.
  • Appeasement display includes licking, ritual walking, closed mouth (no hissing).
  • 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.
    • 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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