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How to track your (Komodo) dragon

Posted by: Achmad Ariefiandy, Population Monitoring of Komodo Dragons in Komodo National Park, a Woodland Park Zoo Wildlife Survival Fund project

Editor’s Note: Woodland Park Zoo has been supporting Komodo dragon conservation in the wild for more than 15 years through the Wildlife Survival Fund. You can see Komodo dragons at the zoo in the Adaptations Building and join us in celebrating Asian Wildlife Conservation Day, Saturday, August 8, 2015.

The field project conducts an annual study to measure growth as an indicator of population demographics, foundational data for effective conservation strategies for this vulnerable species. They share this update from the field:

Researcher doing some measurements on the baby dragon. Photo by Achmad Ariefiandy.

Researchers from the Komodo Survival Program conducted an annual demographic study on two main sites, Loh Liang on Komodo Island and Loh Buaya on Rinca Island. The team set up eight 3-meter-long aluminum traps baited with goat meat. The traps were deployed for three days before being moved to other locations for a total of 64 trapping locations. The team checked the traps twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon. If a Komodo dragon was captured, the team measured the animal before release at the site of capture. Traps were distributed in order to cover the entire deciduous monsoon forest valleys of Loh Liang and Loh Buaya, the preferred habitat type of Komodo dragons. Distance between traps was approximately 500 meters (approximately a third of a mile). This meant the researchers walked an average of 8 – 12 kilometers a day (between 5 and 8 miles) to set up and check the traps.        

During this year's field work, the team successfully captured and measured 90 dragons. Sixty-eight of them were animals that had been captured before (previously tagged) and the other 22 animals were new captures. Two of these were young dragons. However, these young dragons were not captured in the traps because they were too small and too weary to enter the trap. Researchers found the youngsters on trees and captured them there. Following capture, the team measured the young lizards, a process that takes less than 20 minutes. After being measured, the young dragons were released to the trees.

Baby dragon basking on a tree branch. Photo by Achmad Ariefiandy.

Late February to early April is the time of the year when Komodo dragon eggs hatch after approximately 8 month of incubation. The female lays the eggs in a 6.5 inch-deep nest chamber. At this depth, the temperature is stable and warm enough for the eggs to incubate, and they are also safe from predators, including other dragons. The female dragon also makes several camouflage chambers in order to deceive potential predators. The reason she does this is because she guards the nest for only the first four months of incubation. She then leaves the nest to return to her activities, including hunting. After the eggs have hatched, the babies will dig their way up to the nest surface and then climb up the nearest trees to avoid predators. They will spend their first year in trees until they are large enough to return to the ground.

After conducting necessary measurements, the baby dragon was released again to the tree where it was captured. Photo by Nicholas Cegalerba.