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The Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, is the largest living member of the lizard family. Fearsome predators, the Komodo dragon exists on isolated islands throughout Indonesia. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN,) only 5,000 specimens of the species exist in the wild and they are considered vulnerable to extinction.
An adult Komodo dragon is, on average, 6.5-10 ft (2-3 m) in length and weighs about 154 lbs (70 kg,) although they can grow much larger. The largest recorded wild Komodo dragon weighed 365 lbs (166 kg.) Their claws are exceptionally powerful, and are used for digging burrows and holding down prey. The Komodo dragon does not have an acute sense of smell or vision, relying mainly on its tongue to detect the world around it.
The mating season of Komodo dragons runs from May to August annually, and features violent confrontations over breeding rights. Some evidence suggests that Komodo dragons mate for life, a rare behavioral trait among lizard species. Females lay eggs in September and incubate them for seven or eight months. During the first four or five years of life, Komodo dragons spend most of their time in trees, as adult male dragons commonly kill and eat juveniles. Captive dragons have displayed evidence of parthenogenic reproduction, the laying of viable eggs without any male fertilization.
The Komodo dragon is a carnivore and fierce predator. Although they mainly feed on carrion, the lizards are capable of using their powerful jaws, claws and tails to kill large animals.Because of their slow metabolism, meals take an extremely long time to digest. Some specimens have been observed to survive on as few as 12 meals per year. Komodo dragons are also strong swimmers and have been observed swimming from island to island in search of food.
Possibly to aid their abilities as carrion-feeders, dragons have evolved incredibly virulent strains of bacteria that live in their mouth. If unable to kill prey with strength, a Komodo dragon bite will typically cause an infection in the wounded animal, often leading to weakness or death within a few days. Some recent studies have also suggested that Komodo dragons may be mildly venomous, with bites on humans resulting in swelling and prolonged pain.
Although 5,000 Komodo dragons are believed to exist in the wild, some experts suggest there may only be 350 breeding females. A 2002 study also showed that wild dragons are becoming smaller, possibly due to a lower availability of prey. The species is considered threatened by poaching, loss of prey and natural events such as the volcanoes and earthquakes common throughout their range. Zoo-based breeding programs have not yet been very successful, as the animals are susceptible to disease and do not often reproduce. If the species is to remain viable in the wild, many experts believe that conservation efforts to protect the Komodo dragon and the food sources they exist on must be expanded.