Komodo Dragon's Deadly Secret Revealed
Komodo dragon lizards may have weak bites, but their powerful throat muscles and razor-sharp teeth make up for their dainty chomp.
Credit: Barry Sweet/AP

Komodo dragons may have a wimpy bite for their size, but somehow the giant lizards manage to take down prey as large as water buffalos.

A new study reveals that a few dozen razor-sharp teeth combined with beefy neck muscles make up for the reptile's dainty chomp.

"The Komodo has a featherweight, space-frame skull and bites like a wimp, but a combination of very clever engineering and wickedly sharp teeth allow it to do serious damage," said Stephen Wroe, a biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Wroe and his colleague Karen Moreno detail their findings about Komodo dragons, a type of monitor lizard found in central Indonesia that can grow nearly 10 feet (3 meters) in length and weigh 154 pounds (70 kilograms), in a recent issue of the Journal of Anatomy.

To investigate the mystery of how the Komodo dragon can attack with deadly force without powerful chompers, Wroe and Moreno built a model of its head and throat with software normally used to analyze minute forces in vehicles. The jaw may be weak, but 100 million years of evolution have given the dragon — the largest living species of lizard — other tools to succeed.

“The Komodo displays a unique hold-and-pull feeding technique," Wroe said. "Its delicate skull differs greatly from most living terrestrial large prey specialists, but it’s a precision instrument."

He explained that the lizard nabs prey with 60 perilous teeth, although its bite is weak. To make up for the lack of biting power, strong throat muscles drag the meal through the razor-sharp jowls and into the stomach.

Wroe said the eating action removes dangerous stress from the fragile yet streamlined skull.

"This remarkable reduction in stress … is facilitated partly by the shape of the bones," he said, noting also that their arrangement is a key to success.

Once a Komodo dragon maims its prey, which can weigh nearly as much as the lizard, it is swallowed whole and later regurgitated in a foul-smelling pellet of hair, bone and other indigestible remains. The lizards are also known for their infectious bites and parthenogenesis, or the ability to reproduce without mating.