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Secrets of an Ancient Killing Machine
Why Komodo dragons and great white sharks are the ultimate in predator design
Louise Williams (louise61)     Print Article 
Published 2008-04-20 13:58 (KST)   
Indonesia's Komodo dragon
©2008 UNSW
An international study has revealed Indonesia's Komodo dragon has a bite as weak as a domestic cat, but is so cleverly engineered it can slay a water buffalo many times its own weight.

The secrets of the killing machine of Indonesia's eastern islands have been unlocked by a team of Australian scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, using engineering principles usually applied to crash test vehicles.

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They found the huge monitor lizard does not rely on brute force, but an efficiency of design which allows it to kill with the minimum of effort.

"It really is a precision instrument for killing," said UNSW researcher, Dr Stephen Wroe.

Unlike other large predators, such as lions, which have immensely strong jaws, the Komodo dragon has a surprisingly weak bite and an unusually lightweight skull made up of small interconnecting bridges of bone.

"We looked at the jaw muscles and they were relatively weak and the skull which isn't very robust, but we know the Komodo dragon can and does kill large prey," said Dr Wroe.

"We wanted to understand how."

Dr Wroe, and co-researcher, Karen Moreno, used reverse-engineering computer models, usually employed to measure force in simulated "crash tests" of planes, trains and cars.

They built their 3D digital predator from data accessed from a CT scan of a preserved Komodo dragon specimen borrowed from a museum. This produced the first accurate measurements of the biomechanics of the lizard's bite force and feeding mechanisms. The findings are to be published in the latest issue of the Journal of Anatomy.

The results show the Komodo dragon enhances its weak jaw by using the muscles of its neck and body, which allow it to pull its prey as the same time as biting. When combined with its 60 razor sharp, serrated teeth, a single bite can sever a large hunk of flesh in a single lunge.

"The Komodo dragon is able to inflict really horrendous wounds. It can come in, take a big slab of flesh, then stand back and wait for its prey to bleed to death," said Dr Wroe.

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"It's really is a very efficient way of killing, especially compared to big cats which have to use an extraordinary amount of energy and risk injury to themselves by strangling their prey to death."

Dr Wroe said the Komodo dragon's killing technique was similar to that of Australia's feared Great White Shark. The Great White needs to strike only once when hunting seals, then hangs back to lets its prey die, without expending any further energy.

The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is a member of the goanna family with ancestors dating back more than 100 million years. It inhabits the central Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Gili Dasami and shares the feeding and dental characteristics of extinct dinosaurs, sabre-toothed cats and some sharks.

The Komodo dragon grows to an average length of two to three metres and can weigh up to 70 kilograms. The reptile's unusual size is attributed to island "gigantism"; as they have no natural predators in their island habitats they dominate the ecosystems in which they live. Although Komodo dragons eat mostly carrion, they will also hunt and ambush prey including invertebrates, birds, and mammals, including water buffalo.

A nine-year-old boy was mauled to death on Komodo Island last year. However, despite the lizard's vicious image fatal attacks on human are rare. About 2,500 Komodo dragons live in the national park on Komodo Island, but a group of seven were relocated following last year's attack.

Louise Williams is an International Communications consultant to the University of New South Wales.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Louise Williams

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