Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Hatch Your Dragon! The First Komodo Dragons Born at the National Zoo in 1992

Komodo dragon at the National Zoo displays its tongue that has scent receptors for hunting. “Kracken” is all grown up now in her new 620 square foot outdoor enclosure, attached to its 714 square foot indoor enclosure, September 10, 2002, photograph by Jessie Cohen. National Zoological Park photograph collection. Negative # NZP-20020910-3394JC
As fall approaches, we think of nature as quieting down for the winter; while spring is the season for baby booms. But such was not the case on September 13, 1992, when the National Zoo’s Komodo dragon eggs began to hatch, the first ever dragons born outside of their native Indonesia!  As children know from the adventures of Hiccup, the Viking boy in the popular books and movie series, How to Train Your Dragon, the successful rearing of dragons requires study, devoted care, and cooperation between different groups, and such was the case here.

Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are the largest of the lizards in the modern world.  They bear a distinct similarity to their dinosaur ancestors, and are fierce fighters.  Male dragons reach a length of 10 feet and can weigh 300 pounds. The largest known specimen was 10.3 feet or 3.13 meters and weighed in at 366 pounds or 166 kg. Although the Komodo can sprint at 13 mph (20 kph), they hunt using a strategy based on stealth and power, as they sit for hours at a time waiting for an unsuspecting deer, boar, goat, or similar sized animal to wander near them. They hunt primarily through scent and can track prey 2.5 miles (4 km) away in a good wind. Komodo dragon hatchlings weigh less than 3.5 ounces (100 g) and are about 16 inches in length (40 cm).  Their first year is quite precarious since they can be eaten by a number of predators, including adult Komodos. The young feed on insects, small lizards, snakes or birds – whatever is at hand. By the time they reach five years of age, they can weigh 55 pounds (25 Kg) and stretch 6.5 feet (2 m) long. In the wild, their life span can be more than thirty years.

Color postcard of a Komodo Dragon at the National Zoological Park. The Komodo Dragon is sitting on top of a pile of rocks, and a zookeeper Roy Jennier is standing to its right. The postcard caption reads:  “Komodo Dragon, a young specimen of the largest of all Lizards," by Curt Teich & Co., 1935. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 65, Box 16, Folder: Postcards. Negative # SIA2013-07822  

The National Zoological Park had been home to a Komodo dragon in the 1930s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Zoo director Ted Reed traveled to Indonesia to bring back a pair, “Reni” and “Kelana,” but alas, no babies ever appeared. In the summer of 1988, two Komodo dragons arrived at the National Zoological Park, as gifts from the people of Indonesia to the people of the United States. The two Komodos, “Friendty” and “Sobat” were the only members of their species on exhibit in the Western hemisphere.  The Zoo hoped for some youngsters, but the Komodos were not easy to breed. 

One of the two Komodo Dragons in the National Zoological Park's Reptile House, “Friendty” is six-and-a half feet long and weighs 30.8 lbs., 1988, photograph by Jessie Cohen. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Box 5, Folder: September 1988. Negative # 96-1372.

Clearly the zookeepers needed to learn how to hatch a dragon…….  
Studying how Komodos live in the wild, the keepers decided to expand the dragon exhibit and create a separate nesting area for the female. The exotic couple seemed to like their new digs, and keepers observed courtship activity from December 7 through December 29, 1991.  On January 17, 1992, the female dug a new burrow, and six days later scientists found 26 precious eggs in the nest!

Komodo parents don’t care for their eggs or young – a female may sit on the nest to protect it, but they don’t always.  So the eggs were removed and placed in incubators, sending ten to a lab at George Mason University and putting sixteen in NZP incubators.  The Zoo had developed a cooperative arrangement with nearby George Mason University and split the eggs to two locations for safety’s sake. Months went by without any real action, but after a mere 237 days, on September 13, the first of the tiny dragons hatched at George Mason University!

Komodo dragon hatchling, a female “Kracken,” in September 1992, photograph by Jessie Cohen. National Zoological Park photograph collection. Negative # 215-53JC.tif 

Within four weeks, a total of thirteen Komodo dragons emerged at George Mason and at the Zoo, making this the largest hatching of Komodos on record, in zoos or in the wild.  The National Zoological Park thus became the first place in the Western Hemisphere to breed the rare and endangered Komodo dragon. In the years since this first dragon, four clutches of eggs have hatched at the Zoo, resulting in 55 little dragons that now can be seen at 30 zoos around the world!  Scientists think the long period of incubation is to keep the eggs safe during the searing heat of Indonesian summers. When they hatch in the fall, they are far more likely to survive. 

Komodo Dragon awaiting adoption at the National Zoological Park. Courtesy of National Zoological Park website.

Komodo dragons are still not easy to tame, and would prove a challenge to Hiccup or any other adventurous child today.  Instead you can adopt a Komodo dragon at the National Zoo to get to know and help preserve this endangered species. Come visit Kracken at the National Zoo, and if that's not enough, consider a Komodo dragon tour to Indonesia -- these have also become a popular tourist destination.  

Pamela Henson

No comments:

Post a Comment