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Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Genus Varanus
    • Latinization of the Arabic word "waran," the Egyptian name for the Nile monitor
      • Egyptians believed these lizards served as "monitors," alerting people when crocodiles present
    • Genus name introduced in 1820 by German professor Blasius Merrem
  • Approximately 50 Varanus species recognized
    • Similar in appearance
    • Body size varies greatly (from 0.32 m to 3.5 m)
      • Family Varanidae includes the largest living lizards
  • 1912: first mention of Komodo dragon in scientific literature
    • Peter Owens, a Dutch zoologist, mentions a "Varanus species of an unusual size" from Komodo Island (Ouwens 1911)

Common Names

  • Komodo Dragon
    • Named for one of the islands on which they are found (Komodo Island)
  • "Ora"
    • Local name in the Mangarrai dialect
  • Hindi name "biscobra"
    • Implies that this lizard is twice as deadly as a cobra
  • Malaysian name "buaja darat"
    • Means land crocodile

Evolutionary History

  • Oldest varanid lizard lineages
    • Fossils from 95 million years ago (Cretaceous)
    • Lived in Europe and Asia
    • Related to the early monosaurs and snakes
  • Genus Varanus first recognized in the fossil record from about 34 million years ago (Egypt; Late Eocene) (Homes et al. 2010)
    • Indicates that varanid lizards dispersed from Africa to Europe, Asia, and Australia
  • Varanus komodoensis evolved about 4 million years ago
    • Descended from Megalania prisca, a large Pleistocene lizard
  • Inhabited Wallacean islands of eastern Indonesia 1 million years ago
  • Once found across mainland Australia (Hocknull et al. 2009)
    • Disappeared from mainland Australia around 50,000 years ago (Hocknull et al. 2009)
      • Coincides with arrival of modern humans

Cultural History

Cultural attitudes towards Komodo dragon

(Sunkar et al. 2020)

  • Varies among Indonesian islands
  • On Komodo Island, regarded a cousin; treated with respect


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia (Laurenti, 1768) — reptiles

Order: Squamata (Oppel, 1811) — amphibians, lizards, snakes

Family: Varanidae — monitors, monitor lizards

Genus: Varanus (Merrem, 1820)

Species: Varanus komodoensis — Komodo dragon

Source: Integrated Taxnomic Information System (2017)

Page Citations

Ciofi (2004)
Green & King (1991)
Molnar (2004)
Molnar & Pianka (2004)
IBL Reptile Database (1997)
Zug (1993)

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