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Komodo Dragon

Komodo dragon, resting on a rock. Image taken at Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

Komodo dragons are crazy cool lizards, with no natural enemies. They’re only found on a few small islands in Indonesia and most of what we know about them we’ve only learned in the last 30 years. They are the largest living lizards in the world, averaging 150 lbs (68kg) and 8 ft. (2.4m) in length, though they’ve been known to grow as much as 300 lbs and 10 ft. in length. And actually, since they can eat 80% of their body weight in one sitting (!!), a male that just finished a large meal can be weighed at more than 550 pounds. This big lizard had big ancestors. Their largest ancestor was the Megalania prisca, which grew to over 23 ft and 1,400 pounds and was the largest venomous animal to have ever lived (as far as we know).

Sleeping Dragon

A resting Komodo dragon. Image taken at the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

Predominantly ambush predators, these lizards can hunt animals 5 times larger than themselves and 15 times their weight, including deer and water buffalo.  Although they appear toothless, because their gums cover their teeth until they’re ready to bite, they have 60 inch-long teeth and deliver deeper and more damaging wounds than a crocodile. When they eat, their gums tear and bleed. The blood mixes with the saliva and makes a slime that allows them to swallow their food whole. Every part of the prey is eaten, even hooves, and it all gets dissolved in their strong stomach acids. The lizard may have to sleep for up to an entire week while its food digests after eating a big meal.

Sleepy Komodo Dragon

Resting Komodo dragon at the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

Oh and they’re venomous. What’s that you say? No they’re not? You learned a long time ago that the Komodo dragon has bacteria in its mouth and it’s a bacterial infection that causes the slow, agonizing death of the prey? Yeah, so did I. It wasn’t until 2009 that scientists discovered that they are venomous. They have venom glands in their mouth and venom causes their prey to continuously bleed. They die from blood loss and infection.

Cutey Pie

Komodo dragon. Image taken at the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

Nothing is safe from a Komodo dragon-not even Komodo dragons. They are cannibalistic, with healthy dragons eating the young, old or injured dragons. Young Komodo dragons make up about 10% of an adult dragon’s diet. For this reason, when young dragons hatch, they dash up into the trees to avoid being eaten. But many won’t make it. Birds, snakes and other Komodo dragons-sometimes even their mothers- will catch them before they can reach the safety of the tree. They have to be cautious and quick when they come down for water and sometimes they may roll around in feces to mask their odor from adults.

I see you

A Komodo dragon. Image taken at Los Angeles Zoo.

One reason why they eat their own young may be that they need to in order to reach their huge size. The young eat insects, and small lizards and mammals, but there are very few medium sized animals on the islands. Those that are there were introduced and so weren’t always around. Perhaps eating their own young gets them to the next size level where they can go after bigger animals.

adorable lizard

Komodo dragon resting on a big rock. Image taken at the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.

These predators have excellent senses. They have a forked 16-inch tongue that works like a snake’s tongue-flicking it out into the world, they can taste/smell with their tongue. They can find carrion more than 5 miles away. They are covered in hard scales, each one with a sensory plaque for increased sensitivity. On their face and feet, each scale has 3 or more sensory plaques, further heightening their sensitivity. They can see in color. We used to think they were deaf, but that was disproved by a zookeeper that trained one to come when it heard her voice. Now we know that they only hear sounds in the low range of pitches. They can even distinguish between different human voices.

I see you

A Komodo dragon checking us out. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Male Komodo dragons are territorial. Females and young can inhabit their territory, but males are only allowed to pass through when the visitor is tracking prey. They will fight other males to breed, standing on their hind legs and balancing on their tales. After the loser falls, he will lie still while the winner scrapes his claws along the loser’s back and tail as a sign of dominance.

Females use their claws to dig egg chambers. Since Komodo dragons will raid each others’ nests, the mother dragon will dig mazes of false tunnels to confuse any would-be egg raiders.

dragon claws

Komodo dragon claws, front foot. Females use their claws to dig egg chambers. Males will scrape them across defeated Komodos. Image taken at Los Angels Zoo.

dragon claws

Front feet of the Komodo dragon.  Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

back claws

Komodo dragon claws, hind leg. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Females will also guard their nests for up to 3 months. She’ll leave once the rainy season hits, since the chances of her eggs being disturbed are substantially less.

In 2006, we discovered another surprising fact about Komodo dragon reproduction. The females can be parthenogenetic! In London’s Chester Zoo, a female produced 8 offspring without ever having met a male, giving us our first glimpse at this cool adaptation.

Komodo dragons can live 50 years in the wild and up to 9 months without water. They are strong swimmers, able to travel between islands and dive to depths of 15 feet.

Swim time

Time to cool off. A Komodo dragon about to take a swim. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Komodo Swimming

Komodo dragon going for a swim. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

People in Komodo and Rinca take precautions to avoid attacks from Komodo dragons. They don’t wander into the forests or grasslands alone and they never antagonize or approach the dragons. They’ve also had a long-held belief that if they feed the old dragons that could no longer hunt, throwing them old deer heads and hides and fish heads and guts, it was sort of a peace offering and it kept them and their children safe from getting attacked. Younger dragons sometimes ate the food as well. There was only 1 human death recorded in 30 years (since records started) from 1965-1995.

However, in 1995 Komodo park authorities banned the feeding of Komodo dragons, which environmentalists thought would make them grow lazy and forget how to hunt themselves. They also outlawed the dogs, which are considered an invasive species, which have been used to keep the dragons out of the villages. Since these things have been put in place, several people have been killed by Komodo dragons since 2000 and some dragons have recently begun to enter school buildings and homes. That’s right. Imagine a giant 8-foot venomous lizard walking down your school hallway.

K. dragon

Komodo dragon. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.

It may surprise you to know that King Kong was actually based on an expedition to collect Komodo dragons. The best trappers had extreme difficulty and the dragons were escaping. The movie producer Merian C. Cooper took the story and changed the giant lizard to an ape.

Komodo dragons appear in a few other movies as well. In The Freshman they used an Asian water monitor to be a “Komodo dragon.” In Komodo Dragon, the dragons are computer generated. It turns out that real Komodos don’t do well with handling.

You can also find cool Komodo dragon art, like this awesome statue that lives at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, that kids are allowed to climb on.

Dragon statue

A Komodo dragon statue in Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle. There are brightly colored tiles along its back. Children are allowed to play on it.

Alright, one last cool tidbit on this really long post. At a Singapore Zoo, they’ve used acupuncture to treat a sick dragon. It’s thought to have been successful.

Have one last photo of these beautiful animals.

Komodo Dragon

Komodo dragon, clearly contemplating the meaning of life. Image taken at the Los Angeles Zoo.


Fantastic Frog Art!

save the frogs

Amazing frog art from Kara Timmons.

This amazing piece of frog art from Kara Timmons won the Save the Frogs art contest. Depicted on the frogs’ backs are some of the problems that are leading our amphibian friends to crazy levels of extinction including invasive species, climate change, deforestation, harvesting and shipping for school dissections, frogs legs and the pet trade (spreads the chytrid fungus), and pollution and deformities. Find out what you can do to help frogs at Check out more cool frog art here. You can also purchase awesome amphibian art like this in the form of postcards, posters, totes, t-shirts and other goodies at the Save the Frogs gift center.

Another one of my favorite pieces:

Gastric brooding frog

yay! Frog art by Ana-Maria Maximencu.

Of course, I am biased; this is clearly my favorite frog species, the gastric brooding frog, that went extinct in my life time.

Another favorite:

Froggy Lisa

Brayden Brown, age 14, showing a lot of imagination in this piece.

There are many more like this, so check it out! Also, if you are feeling so inclined, Save the Frogs is working hard to get Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco to rescind a veto on legislation that is allowing one of the few remaining wetland areas in California to be a golf course. These wetlands are also home to the endangered red-legged frog and the endangered San Francisco garter snake. You can help Save the Frogs on this important mission by letting Mayor Ed Lee know what you think about his decision to veto this important legislation by calling him at (415) 554-6141 or e-mailing him at Cheers!

Okay, one more:

frog piper

Fantastic! by Bhavya Dhami

Invisibility is Not a Super Power

Mossy Leaf Tailed Gecko

Mossy Leaf tailed Gecko. Image stolen from greenwalla.

This link has some of the most amazing photos of animal camouflage I have ever seen. Also, just in case you haven’t seen this amazing video yet:

Lest you think these animal have us beat in this category, check this out. We will catch up someday…

Can animals predict earthquakes?


Image from BBC Nature News.

Interesting observations of amphibians possibly sensing chemical changes in groundwater before an earthquake and anecdotal observations of strange behavior from the animal kingdom pre-earthquake found here.

Follow Me To Baby Animal Cuteness

Baby Lynx

A tagged baby lynx. Image by the USFWS.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has a beautiful baby animal post on their blog right now. Click here to check it out.



A tick crawling along the ground. Image taken at Ano Nuevo nature reserve.

Imagine for a moment that you were a tick. What would your world be like? A tick’s world consists of only 3 sensory cues. Three. First, they can detect light. This helps them to climb up tall grass to get higher off the ground and in a spot they are more likely to find a passing meal.


A tick now climbing up some blades of grass. Image taken at Ano Nuevo in California.

Once high up on a blade of grass, she waits for her second cue, the smell of butyric acid-a mammalian chemical by-product. When this smell comes by, she knows food is near and will drop off of her plant. An individual tick has been known to wait as long as 18 years for this precious cue.

Her last cue is warmth. Warmth indicates where blood is running close under the skin. Finding a warm spot, she burrows in, drinks the blood, drops off her host, lays her eggs and dies. She can’t taste the blood she’s been waiting so long for. In fact, she will drink any fluid that is the right temperature.

That’s it. Three things a tick can sense throughout its entire life. That’s its Umwelt, which is a term that means “the surrounding world” and is used to describe the unique and  limiting sensory world of every single animal species. Even within a species, individual animals can perceive the world differently.

A ticks Umwelt is incredibly simple. However because of this simplicity, her actions are unfailingly certain, with no distractions.

It’s wonderful to imagine what the world must be like to other animals. What do they experience that we don’t? What can we sense that they cannot? I plan to go into this in more detail in future posts. For the moment, consider our Umwelt and how very limiting it is. Even within our species, each of our brains is interpreting the world around us in a slightly different way. Sometimes before a stimulus even gets to our brains the hardware that captures it can be different between individuals. Take for instance our eyeballs. If we remove technology like glasses and lenses, think of how differently human beings would see the world. Even with those glasses and lenses there are differences.

We rely so much on our senses, it’s easy to imagine that the world holds only what we can experience. A great example of this is the discovery of color blindness. Although almost 10% of humans are color blind, color blindness wasn’t discovered until 1793, when a chemist named John Dalton, who had been working for years on colors of chemical compounds, realized that he himself was color blind. Imagine! It’s so easy to assume that everyone else senses what you do!

So next time you say the sky is blue and your friend says its purple, maybe they’re not being argumentative, maybe they’re telling the truth!

What’s going on?

Dear Backyard Zoologist readers,

You’ve probably noticed a huge drop off in posts recently and I wanted to let you know what’s going on. In all honesty, I began this blog over a year ago because I enjoy sharing information and pictures of awesome wildlife. I still do, but at the moment I have a lot of cool but time consuming things going on and creating these posts on a regular schedule is starting to become more of a chore than something I do for fun. So, I’ve decided to only write new posts when the spirit moves me instead of on a regular schedule, to eliminate the dreaded deadline of Monday and Friday. Still, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see what’s new or better yet, sign up for e-mail notifications to let you know when I do post something new.

I still have lots to share…for example, did you know that this animal:


A giant green Anemone. Image taken at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve tidepools in California.

is used as a vertebrate heart stimulant? Or that this animal:


A 9 banded armadillo. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

always gives birth to identical quadruplets? And naturally grows the bacteria responsible for leprosy on its feet? Scientists couldn’t cultivate this bacteria in a lab, so they brought in live armadillos to collect the bacteria to work with.

Or that this animal:

tree shrew

A tree shrew. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Is very smart and has a larger brain size to body mass than humans do?

Or that this animal:


California kingsnake, Kali, my personal companion.

Is called a kingsnake because it eats other snakes, including rattlesnakes and is immune to rattlesnake venom?

Or that these animals:

rock doves

Rock doves, a.k.a. pigeons. Image taken in San Francisco.

are one of the few birds that feed their young a type of milk?

Or that this animal:

marine toad

A marine toad. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

is one of the only toads that will sometimes eat vegetation and dead things? While other frogs and toads want to eat only moving things, this toad is even attracted by dog and cat food left in yards.

Or that this animal:


A lionfish. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

is covered in highly venomous barbs and that dolphins will sometimes grab these fish by their tummies and use them as weapons to catch fish hiding in crevices?

Unanana and the Elephant


An elephant at the Oakland Zoo.

Many, many years ago there was a woman called Unanana who had two beautiful children. They lived in a hut near the roadside and people passing by would often stop when they saw the children, exclaiming at the roundness of their limbs, the smoothness of their skin and the brightness of their eyes.

Early one morning, Unanana went into the bush to collect firewood and left her two children playing with a little cousin who was living with them. The children shouted happily, seeing who could jump the furthest, and when they were tired they sat on the dusty ground outside the hut, playing a game with pebbles.

Suddenly they heard a rustle in the nearby grasses, and seated on a rock they saw a puzzled-looking baboon.


A baboon being groomed. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

‘Whose children are those?’ he asked the little cousin.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied.

‘Well, well, well!’ exclaimed the baboon in his deep voice. ‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before.’

Then he disappeared and the children went on with their game.

A little later they heard the faint crack of a twig and looking up they saw the big, brown eyes of a gazelle staring at them from beside a bush.

addra gazelle

An addra gazelle sunning. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

‘Whose children are those?’ she asked the cousin.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied.

‘Well, well, well!’ exclaimed the gazelle in her soft smooth voice. ‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ and with a graceful bound she disappeared into the bush.

The children grew tired of their game, and taking a small gourd they dipped it in turn into the big pot full of water which stood at the door of their hut, and drank their fill.

A sharp bark made the cousin drop her gourd in fear when she looked up and saw the spotted body and treacherous eyes of a leopard, who had crept silently out of the bush.


Leopard stares at us. Image taken in Bandon, Oregon.

‘Whose children are those?’ he demanded.

‘They belong to Unanana,’ she replied in a shaky voice, slowly backing towards the door of the hut in case the leopard should spring at her. But he was not interested in a meal just then.

‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ he exclaimed, and with a flick of his tail he melted away into the bush.

The children were afraid of all these animals who kept asking questions and called loudly to Unanana to return, but instead of their mother, a huge elephant with only one tusk lumbered out of the bush and stood staring at the three children, who were too frightened to move.

‘Whose children are those?’ he bellowed at the little cousin, waving his trunk in the direction of the two beautiful children who were trying to hide behind a large stone.

‘They…they belong to Una…Unanana,’ faltered the little girl.

The elephant took a step forward.

‘Never have I seen such beautiful children before,’ he boomed. ‘I will take them away with me,’ and opening wide his mouth he swallowed both children at a gulp.

The little cousin screamed in terror and dashed into the hut, and from the gloom and safety inside it she heard the elephant’s heavy footsteps growing fainter and fainter as he went back into the bush.

It was not until much later that Unanana returned, carrying a large bundle of wood on her head. The little girl rushed out of the house in a dreadful state and it was some time before Unanana could get the whole story from her.

‘Alas! Alas!’ said the mother. ‘Did he swallow them whole? Do you think they might still be alive inside the elephant’s stomach?’

‘I cannot tell,’ said the child, and she began to cry even louder than before.

‘Well,’ said unanana sensibly, ‘there’s only one thing to do. I must go into the bush and ask all the animals whether they have seen an elephant with only one tusk. But first of all I must make preparations.’

She took a pot and cooked a lot of beans in it until they were soft and ready to eat. Then seizing her large knife and putting the pot of the food on her head, she told her little niece to look after the hut until she returned, and set off into the bush to search for the elephant.

Unanana soon found the tracks of the huge beast and followed them for some distance, but the elephant himself was nowhere to be seen. Presently, as she passed through some tall, shady trees, she met the baboon.

‘O baboon! Do help me!’ she begged. ‘Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk? He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ said the baboon.

So the woman went on along the dusty track for a very long time but she saw no sign of the elephant.

Suddenly she noticed a gazelle leaping across her path.

‘O gazelle! Do help me! Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk?’ she asked. ‘He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ said the gazelle, as she bounded away.

‘O dear!’ sighed Unanana. ‘It seems a very long way and I am so tired and hungry.’

But she did not eat the food she carried, since that was for her children when she found them.

On and on she went, until rounding a bend in the track she saw a leopard sitting outside of his cave-home, washing himself with his tongue.

‘O leopard!’ she exclaimed in a tired void. ‘Do help me! Have you seen an elephant with only one tusk? He has eaten both my children and I must find him.’

‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant,’ replied the leopard, as he bent his head and continued his toilet.

‘Alas!’ gasped Unanana to herself. ‘If I do not find this place soon, my legs will carry me no further.’

She staggered on a little further until suddenly, ahead of her, she saw some high trees with large white stones spread about on the ground below them.

‘At last!’ she exclaimed, and hurrying forward she found a huge elephant lying contentedly in the shade of the trees. One glance was enough to show her that he had only one tusk, so going up as close as she dared, she shouted angrily:

‘Elephant! Elephant! Are you the one that has eaten my children?’

‘oh no!’ he replied lazily. ‘Go straight along this track until you come to a place where there are high trees and white stones. There you will find the elephant.’

But the woman was sure this was the elephant she sought and stamping her foot, she screamed at him again:

‘Elephant! Elephant! Are you the one that has eaten my children?’

‘O no! Go straight along this track—-‘ began the elephant again, but he was cut short by Unanana who rushed up to him waving her knife and yelling:

‘Where are my children? Where are they?’

The elephant opened his mouth and without even troubling to stand up, he swallowed Unanana with the cooking-pot and her knife in one gulp. And this was just what Unanana had hoped for.

Down, down, down she went in the darkness, until she reached the elephant’s stomach. What a sight met her eyes! The walls of the elephant’s stomach were like a range of hills and camped among these hills were little groups of people, many dogs and goats and cows, and her two beautiful children.


Bosco the dog, finally tired out-for two minutes. Image taken at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.


A goat at the Oregon Zoo.


A grazing cow. Image taken in Peru, near Cuzco.

‘Mother! Mother!’ they cried when they saw her. ‘How did you get here? Oh, we are so hungry.’

Unanana took the cooking-pot off her head and began to feed her children with the beans, which they ate ravenously. All of the other people crowded round, begging for just a small portion of the food, so Unanana said to them scornfully: ‘Why do you not roast meat for yourselves, seeing that you are surrounded by it?’

She took her knife and cut large pieces of flesh from the elephant and roasted them over the fire she built in the middle of the elephant’s stomach, and soon everyone, including the dogs and goats and cattle, was feasting on elephant-meat very happily.

But the groans of the poor elephant could be heard all over the bush, and he said to those animals who came along to find out the cause of his unhappiness:

‘I don’t know why it is, but ever since I swallowed that woman called Unanana, I have felt most uncomfortable and unsettled inside.’

The pain got worse and worse, until with a final grunt the elephant dropped dead. Then Unanana seized her knife again and hacked a doorway between the elephant’s rips through which soon streamed a ling of dogs, goats, cows, men, women and children, all blinking their eyes in the strong sunlight and shouting for joy at being free once more.

The animals barked, bleated or mooed their thanks, while the human beings gave Unanana all kinds of presents in gratitude to her for setting them free, so that when Unanana and her two children reached home, they were no longer poor.

The little cousin was delighted to see them, for she had thought they were all dead, and that night they had a feast. Can you guess what they ate? Yes, roasted elephant-meat.

This is a South African story taken from the book “African Myths and Legends,” retold by Kathleen Arnott. If you liked it, check out the book, because there’s plenty more where that came from!

Hypnotic Swirls

hornet's nest

A white faced hornet nest, complete with cute hornet face poking out. Image taken by Dawn Collins.

A colleague of mine sent me these beautiful pictures of a white-faced hornet (aka bald-faced hornet) nest. These wasps are a relative of yellow jackets and not true hornets.

hornet nest

A white faced hornet nest. Image taken by Dawn Collins.

Feeling Sheepish…

happy sheep

Happy sheep. Image taken at West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, Oregon.

Hi all! I wanted to apologize for the missing posts; I was in a pretty bad car crash and am heavily medicated. I hope to resume posts on Friday, but until then, have a happy sheep!