Meet the Phoenix Zoo's Real-Life Dragons

By Rafael Almoslino, Ezra Entin, Jaylyn Glasper, Heba Haleem and Jeremiah Schexnayder
June 26, 2014

Not all dragons are at the top of the food chain.

Growing up to 10 feet long, adult Komodo dragons are the largest lizards on the planet. They are also carnivorous.

But baby Komodo dragons aren’t as frightening. Instead, they have to protect themselves from being eaten -- even by their own mothers.

At the Phoenix Zoo, the baby Komodo dragons reside in an indoor glass exhibit that has been open for a mere 10 years, which is fairly new for an exhibit. Lonny Branstuder, a reptile zookeeper, said the exhibit is immensely popular.

“It’s the allure of the dragon,” he said. “You know, everyone thinks dragons are cool, and this is a real-life dragon.”

That enchantment is compounded by the mystery of what the reptiles’ saliva contains. Ryan Elms, another reptile zookeeper, said people at first thought Komodo dragons were venomous. Then scientists theorized that they only had bacteria in their mouths. But it’s still a matter of debate.
“There was an X-ray done to its mouth, and they have found a venom gland,” he said. “To this day, we are still not 100 percent sure if they posses a poisonous bite or not.”

Elms said Komodo dragons are ectotherms, or cold-blooded, which means they use outside sources to regulate their body temperature. He also said that Komodo dragons can take objects out of boxes -- and that their intelligence may even go beyond that.

“It’s the way to understand how intelligent they are,” Elms said. “Just like dogs, I can get them to move from point A to point B with just a little bit of food. I can give them food in a bag, and they can figure out how to get the food out of the bag. Other animals don’t get that process and just rip up the bag, but Komodo dragons understand that process.”

The zoo’s baby Komodo dragons are kept in an indoor exhibit because they are very prone to climbing. In their natural habitat in Indonesia, they climb up trees to protect themselves from being eaten by adult Komodo dragons, only climbing down to get food.

The diet of a baby Komodo dragon is comprised of roaches, crickets and other insects. As they get bigger, they consume larger prey, such as quail, rats and fish.

“So as soon as they hatch out of the egg, they run straight up into the trees, and they stay there,” Branstruder said. “I mean, they’ll go down eventually and get food.”

Both Branstruder and Elms said they have a healthy relationship with the Komodo dragons. They know not to stick their hands in mouths of the baby lizards, but they sense that the Komodo dragons feel safe with a human touch.

The Phoenix Zoo’s baby Komodo dragons can be viewed at the Land of the Dragons exhibit. The zoo also recently added a 6-year-old dragon that is on loan from the San Antonio Zoo.