April 7, 2006

Komodo Dragon Highlights New Lizard Show

CHICAGO -- He's huge, he can be vicious and sometimes he stinks. His oral hygiene is so poor that if he bites you, you're pretty much guaranteed a life-threatening infection. He's going to be very popular.

He's Faust, the 8-foot, 130-pound Komodo dragon who's the centerpiece of "Lizards and the Komodo King," a new special show that opens Saturday and runs through next February at the Shedd Aquarium.

The show includes about 60 lizards from 30 different species - some of them quite spectacular - but aquarium officials acknowledge Faust is going to be the big draw. He's an example of the world's largest living lizard - and an endangered species.

Fewer than 6,000 Komodo dragons are believed to exist in the wild on Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Islands, and 76 to 78 others live in U.S. zoos as part of a captive breeding program.

Faust was hatched at the San Diego Zoo as part of the program and has spent most of his 13 years at the Fort Worth Zoo, which lent him to Shedd for the exhibition, said Ken Ramirez, the aquarium's vice president of animal collections.

Ramirez said Komodo dragons can eat as much as 80 percent of their own weight at a sitting in the wild, but then will go without eating again for several weeks.

"Here, we're feeding him once a week, but smaller portions - we don't want him just lying there sleeping it off," Ramirez said. "He gets six or seven 1- to 1 1/2-pound rats at a sitting, and he eats the entire rat in one bite. When you set out those rats you see how fast he really can run."

Komodo dragons have been clocked at 13 mph over short distances in the wild.

"They've got a horrible reputation, but they can be fairly docile - at least when they don't want to mate and aren't hungry," Ramirez said. "At times like those you don't want to be around."

On their native islands, the giant lizards prefer to eat carrion, but also attack live prey and have been known to take down animals as large as young water buffalo. They're capable of killing such animals in a struggle, but often don't bother.

Since a dragon's saliva contains such a noxious brew of bacteria, a few bites from its sharp serrated teeth usually are enough to cause infection. The victim dies a few days later of septicemia, then the keen-scented dragon sniffs out the putrefaction and eats the rotting corpse at its leisure.

"There's a rumor that Komodo dragons are poisonous, but most biologists now believe it's merely the bacteria in their mouths," Ramirez said.

The 1990 movie, "The Freshman," starring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando, involved a Komodo dragon (which got serenaded by the late Bert Parks), but using a real one was out of the question. The lizard in the movie is really a much smaller and more docile relative, the water monitor.

Which is not to say all monitor lizards are gentle.

One of the lizards in the Shedd show is an adolescent crocodile monitor from New Guinea, about six feet long.

"This is just a young one," said Shedd staff member James Clark. "They can get to be 13 feet long, which is longer than a Komodo dragon, but they're tree-climbers and much lighter. They don't get much heavier than 40 pounds."

That's just fine by Ramirez, who has to feed the crocodile monitor personally.

"That's just a nasty lizard," he said. "Pound for pound, he makes Faust look like a pussycat."

Among the other cold-blooded beasts on display are a uromastyk, which uses its spiny tail as a weapon, and a legless glass lizard from the Caucuses that looks like a snake, but isn't - for one thing, it has functioning eyelids.

The most vivid is a panther chameleon from Madagascar, with as many colors as a painter's palette. Ramirez said the colors are linked to emotion, rather than surroundings. When the female wants a mate, she turns orange; when she's pregnant and wants to be left alone, she turns black with orange trim.