On the Game of Thrones scale of dragon awesomeness, the real-life Komodo dragon may seem tame, but it is anything but.
Sure, it can’t fly. You can’t ride it into battle. And it doesn’t breathe fire (although if you get close enough to smell its breath, your eyes and nose may feel like they’re burning). But it is the biggest creature of its kind, and a massive, rapacious predator with claws and teeth that can rip prey to shreds. Plus, when the conditions are right (or very, very wrong), it can be a man-eater.
Here’s what we know about the Komodo dragon — and what you should know if you ever try to visit one.
What Is a Komodo Dragon?
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is a monitor lizard, the largest of their type. In fact, Komodos are the biggest lizard of any kind still in existence. Adult Komodos typically grow to a length of nearly 10 feet and weigh as much as 200 pounds, with some hefty specimens tipping the scale past the 300-pound mark.
Like most monitor lizards, Komodo dragons are carnivores and hunters by nature. They can reach speeds of 12 miles per hour on the run — faster than the average human. But Komodos generally don’t chase prey; they're ambush predators. When a tasty pig or deer wanders past its hiding spot, a Komodo dragon can attack quickly, biting with a devastating mouthful of serrated teeth. But despite this, they rarely bring their prey down in the initial attack.
Are Komodo Dragons Venomous?
Instead, Komodo dragons have evolved to play the long game, relying on what’s transmitted in their bite to eventually do their dirty work. Komodos have infamously horrible, acrid, eye-wateringly bad breath, and for a good reason.
Shreds of meat and viscera from previous meals tend to get stuck in those serrated teeth, making them prime breeding grounds for deadly bacteria. Even a single bite from a Komodo can turn septic quickly, and the resulting infection can kill prey in a matter of days, sometimes even hours.
As if that wasn't enough, Komodo dragons also possess venom glands, which secrete an anticoagulant, causing an animal to bleed out faster. Once their prey succumbs to the twin threats of venom and septicemia, a hunting Komodo can take its sweet time finding the dead or dying animal.
They use their forked tongue to sample odors in the air (which are then delivered to a sensory organ in the roof of the mouth). In this way, the dragons can smell a dead or dying animal from miles away. Since Komodos have no problem eating carrion, it’s simply a matter of following the smell to its source and chowing down on the decaying carcass — although at that point, they usually have to share the meal with other Komodos, who have also followed the scent.
What Do Komodo Dragons Eat?
But once they get hold of food, they can put a lot of it away in one sitting. Komodo dragons have especially flexible jaws, as well as an expandable throat and stomach, all of which allow them to gulp down massive chunks of meat — sometimes even a whole carcass, hooves and all. If there’s enough food available, an adult dragon can consume as much as 80 percent of its body weight, although after such a feast, a full dragon won’t have to eat again for a while — it can survive on as little as one good meal per month.
When it has to, a Komodo dragon can also lose its food as fast as it takes it in. If threatened, a dragon’s go-to survival move is to throw up quickly (thanks to that expandable throat and stomach) to drop weight and make a less-than-clean getaway.
Where Do Komodo Dragons Live?
We now know that ancestors of the Komodo dragon originated in Australia about 400 million years ago. Eventually, the lizards made their way to Indonesia, where they have existed for at least a million years.
Western civilization only learned of these massive creatures relatively recently. In 1910, a Dutch officer traveled to the island of Komodo in east Indonesia, responding to local reports of a giant crocodile-like creature that lived on land. In typical fashion for the era, the officer found and killed a specimen, sending the skin to a zoologist. News of the “new” species was published a couple of years later, causing a sensation.
Ever since, scientists and tourists have flocked to the area now known as Komodo National Park, a group of islands that includes part of Flores Island, as well as Gili Dasami, Gili Montang, Rinca and of course, the island of Komodo. Outside of captivity, the park is the only place in the world where you can find Komodo dragons.
How Rare Are Komodo Dragons?
While there are about 80 species of monitor lizards around the globe, many of their populations are declining, including the mighty Komodo.
In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated their IUCN Red List to change the Komodo’s status from “threatened” to the more serious “endangered” category, putting it one step closer to extinction.
Just a couple of decades ago, it was estimated that the global population of Komodo dragons was around 8,000. At present, it is believed that fewer than 1,400 adult dragons are still alive in the wild (with perhaps an additional 2,000 juveniles in existence). The main causes of the population decline are all too common: continued human encroachment on the dragons’ territory, the effects of climate change on their habitat and food sources, and even illegal hunting.
Are Komodo Dragons Dangerous to Humans?
Komodo dragons aren’t picky. In addition to the usual animals that they hunt and consume, Komodos are cannibals, and known to prey on younger, smaller dragons. Moreover, as the Indigenous people of the islands would tell you, if you are luckless or foolish enough to wander into their territory, there’s a chance a hungry dragon could attack you and perhaps even eat you. The historical record includes ample accounts of Komodos trying (and sometimes succeeding) in taking on full-grown men.
Read More: The Mythic Bite of the Komodo
Although dragon vs. human encounters aren’t common, numerous attacks and fatalities have occurred, some quite recently, mostly involving local residents. But occasionally tourists and even the dragons’ minders have fallen victim to attack, with reports of Komodos actually sneaking into rangers' offices and grabbing them from under the desk. Talk about a hostile work environment!
Thankfully for the rangers and others, it is a rumor that the bite of a Komodo dragon is always fatal. While their teeth and venom can inflict serious damage, many human victims have survived a close encounter with a dragon. But those victims still needed prompt medical attention, antibiotics and a whole lot of stitches.
In Game of Thrones, it is known that “not all men were meant to dance with dragons.” In the real world, when it comes to the Komodo dragon, no human should even try.
Read More: How Komodo Dragons Survived Extinction