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

Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)

Activity Cycle

Daily patterns

  • Primarily diurnal
    • Range: 4:30-23:30
    • Usual wake between 6:00 and 6:30
    • Activity peaks: 9:30 and 15:30
  • Sunbask for majority of morning hours and some of afternoon
    • Seek shade mainly in the afternoon
  • Sleep about 12 hours every day
    • Shelter in burrows and natural cavities, and under overhanging vegetation

Example statistics

  • Adults spend an average of 26 days searching for prey, 10-20 minutes eating, 3-6 days is spent in digestive pause.

Seasonal changes

  • Activity levels lowest in early part of dry season
  • Activity increases at end of dry season and throughout the rainy season
    • Probably related to weaker prey

Body size affects behavior

  • Body size influences ability to retain and dissipate body heat (thermoregulatory behavior)
    • Larger dragons heat and cool more slowly than smaller dragons
    • Medium-sized dragons active foragers, while larger dragons sit and wait for prey (Harlow et al. 2010)

Movements and Dispersal

Home range

  • Range consists of a foraging area and a scavenging area
    • Foraging area has a smaller core area that includes 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, core area may be a clump of trees
        • For an adult, core area is 4.2 km2, on average
    • Scavenging area determined by location of dead animals
      • Can be extremely large in adults
      • About 16 scavenging individuals occupy 1 km2
    • Travel about 2 km/day
      • Adults may travel up to 10 km/day
  • Factors influencing home range:
    • Topography
    • Prey density
    • Social status
    • Size
    • Sex of individual

Dispersal

  • Capable of long distance movement but exhibit high spacial fidelity (Jessop et al. 2018)
    • Individuals rarely move beyond the valleys in which they were born
    • Excellent homing and navigational abilities

Communication

Visual communication

  • Threat display
    • Tail lashing and/or quivering, gaping mouth, gular inflation, and arched back (accompanied by hissing)
      • Subdominant individual usually flees
  • Appeasement display
    • Licking, ritual walking, closed mouth (no hissing)
  • Flight/escape behavior
    • Lunging and biting, scratching, and defecation
      • Regurgitation may occur in younger animals
  • No sexual displays
    • Aggregations may be essential to successful breeding
      • May also establish and reinforce hierarchies

Vocalizations

  • Hissing is one of few vocalizations of Komodo dragons
    • Usually associated with defensive behavior
    • Used during feeding, during attacks, and frequently by females during mating

Olfactory signals

  • Fecal pellets deposited on trails
    • Chemical cues investigated by other Komodo dragons (using their tongues)
  • Scent plays an important role in territorial marking and while hunting
  • Rubbing behavior
    • 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

Social Behavior

Mainly solitary

  • Interact at feeding sites and for breeding

Dominance hierarchies

  • Based on sex and size, which determines position at feeding sites

Agonistic behavior

  • Fighting between males often results in severe lacerations and even death

Territorial Behavior

Territoriality

  • Minimal to none
    • Foraging and scavenging areas very large and not easily defensible

Other Behaviors

Digging

  • Excavate burrows; dig out bird (megapode) eggs; search for rodents, lizards and snakes
  • Dig with front feet
    • One leg digs for several strokes, then the other
    • Hind legs not used to push out dirt
      • Backs up slowly, throwing the dirt with fore limbs

Body temperature regulation

  • Ectothermic
    • Raise body temperature by sunbasking and absorbing energy from warm surfaces
    • Lower body temperature by seeking shade or burrowing
  • "Gular fluttering" or "hyoid panting" is used only in cases of extreme overheating
    • Mouth held open and gular region of throat is inflated with air; air expelled in fluttering fashion
  • Dig dens to protect themselves from overheating
    • May also occupy thickets or burrows at night to regulate their body temperature
  • Body temperatures of individuals drop to as low as 20ºC (68ºF) at night and can reach above 40ºC (100ºF) during the day
  • Drinking by immersing snout to the eyes, suck up water, then raise head and allow water to run down throat (similar to snakes)
    • Most manage without free water from April through December

Ethogram

  • For behavioral inventory, see Auffenberg (1981), p. 124-127

Interspecies Interactions

Resource competition

  • Feral dogs, humans, and medium-sized Komodos compete for same major resources (deer & boar) (Auffenberg 1981)

Space use

  • Varanus salvator avoids contact with larger Komodo dragons (sympatric on only one island) (Auffenberg 1981)
  • Smaller animals use Komodo dragon burrows for shelter (Auffenberg 1981)
    • Snakes, lizards, and rats

Locomotion

Walking and running

  • Quadrupedal, plantigrade
  • Body, head, and tail undulate from side-to-side
  • While running, body and tail are held fairly rigid; hind feet move in wide lateral arc
    • Tail raised off the ground
  • Speeds
    • Walking: 4.8 km/hr (3 mi/hr).
    • Running: 14-18.5 km/hr (8.7-11 mi/hr)
      • Short distances only

Swimming

  • Most monitors are good swimmers. Diving and swimming under water is effective escape behavior.
  • Limbs are folded against the side of the body, and the tail is used to propel the lizard while swimming (Shaw 2002)
  • 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

  • Climb trees as hatchlings and juveniles
    • Lose ability at larger body size
  • 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 track wounded prey.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Auffenberg (1978, 1981)
Bennett (1998)
Burden (1927)
Harlow et al. (2010)
Jessop et al. (2018) 
Lange (1989)
Lutz & Lutz (1991)
Imansyah et al. (2008)

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