Dragon Tales: Zookeeper's Komodo Bite Raises Questions

Scary Komodo Dragon
(Image credit: Dreamstime.)

One woman recently became the heroine of her own modern-day fairy tale, after she was bitten by a dragon and lived to tell the tale.

The woman, a zookeeper in Omaha, Nebraska, was bitten on the hand by a juvenile Komodo dragon while caring for the creature inside its cage, according to news reports. Though she received immediate medical attention and is expected to make a full recovery, the zookeeper's tale has raised some interesting questions about the world's largest living species of lizard.

Here are three dragon-inspired queries, answered by experts who have studied, cared for and trained these incredible creatures. [In Photos: Top 10 Deadliest Animals]

Are captive Komodo dragons dangerous to humans?

The short answer to this question is yes and no, according to Kenneth Morgan, manager of reptiles at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, who has worked with Komodo dragons in captivity for more than 20 years. Each of these huge lizards has its own temperament, Morgan told Live Science. In other words, some of the Komodo dragons you see in zoos may be more aggressive (and, therefore, more dangerous) than others. However, a Komodo dragon'spenchant for biting humans may have more to do with its age than its disposition, he said.

"When these animals are young, they're naïve in terms of learning what's food and what's not food," Morgan said, noting that juvenile Komodo dragons are also more active foragers than their adult counterparts. In other words, they're more likely to go around biting things to see if they can eat them.

It seems that the juvenile dragon that bit the zookeeper in Omaha this week likely mistook the woman for a snack, said Bryan Fry, an associate professor of biology at the University of Queensland in Australia. The incident was simply a "case of mistaken identity," Fry told Live Science.

But Komodo dragons are powerful predators, capable of taking down large prey, such as deer and boar. And while the wild Komodos of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia rarely attack humans, they have been known to do so. That's something that every zookeeper who deals with these animals bears in mind. It's also something that each zoo deals with differently, Morgan said, adding that some zoos allow keepers to enter Komodo dragon enclosures, while others do not.

Are Komodo dragons venomous?

Yes, Komodo dragons are venomous, Fry said. For decades, scientists thought these animals relied on bacteria to take down prey. The theory was that a Komodo would bite its prey, transferring deadly strands of bacteria from its saliva into the victim's wound. Then, the dragon would wait for the animal to weaken from infection (which could take days) before going in for the kill. [Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth]

But in 2009, Fry and his colleagues discovered that Komodo dragons actually have venom glands located between their teeth. It's venom, not bacteria, that helps these animals take down everything from deer to water buffalo, Fry noted.

"The role of the venom is to exaggerate the blood loss and shock-inducing mechanical damage caused by the bite," Fry said. Komodos have large, serrated teeth (like a shark's) that they use to grip prey and rip open its flesh, he added.

The venom these creatures inject into their prey with every deep bite contains toxins that result in anticoagulation (the inability to stop bleeding) and hypotension (low blood pressure), Fry said. This could explain why news reports about the Omaha zookeeper mentioned that she needed emergency medical attention for a wound that would not stop bleeding.

However, bacteria do play a role in helping wild Komodos take down large prey, such as water buffalo, which are not indigenous to the dragon's range and are much larger than other introduced species that the dragons have adopted as prey (such as deer and pigs). When one or more Komodos go after a water buffalo, their venomous bites are not enough to kill the large animal within minutes, Fry said. What usually happens is that the buffalo seeks refuge in standing water that happens to contain large amounts of fecal matter and, therefore, large amounts of bacteria.

"Deep wounds in feces-laden water is a perfect scenario for the flourishing of bacteria, particularly the nasty anaerobic types," Fry said. "Thus, the sampling of Komodo mouths that purported to show them [harboring] pathogenic bacteria neglected to sample the real source of any infection to the water buffalo: the feces-filled watering hole the dragons recently drank from."

Are they just big, dumb lizards?

No, Komodo dragons aren't just overgrown reptiles with tiny brains, according to Morgan, who has worked with a total of 10 adult Komodos. He said these animals are actually quite intelligent.

Morgan said Komodos respond well to "target training," which is when a zookeeper trains an animal to respond in a certain way to different-colored props, or targets. For example, a yellow target might tell an animal it's time to eat, and a red target could tell the animal to approach its keeper. This type of training allows zoo staff to safely encourage animals such as Komodos to get some exercise, according to the San Diego Zoo. It also helps familiarize them with different staff members, Morgan said. For example, the animals learn to associate mealtime with a colored target rather than the person delivering the food.

"I want to be careful not to be anthropomorphic, but I do think they're intelligent," Morgan said. "They have a larger brain case than other lizards, which can accommodate a larger brain size. They're capable of learning. Not all reptiles can target train."

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.