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'Like a dog in a dinosaur body': Meet the new komodo dragons at the San Antonio Zoo

A baby komodo dragon. (Hope Roth/San Antonio Zoo)
A baby komodo dragon. (Hope Roth/San Antonio Zoo)

The San Antonio Zoo has successfully hatched 10 Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizards.

With fewer than 1,400 adults left in the wild, the event is also a chance to raise awareness about international conservation efforts.

The staff coordinated the logistics of the two dragons that bred. It started with following the recommended pairing from the species survival plan, which meant a male dragon from the Houston Zoo “commuted about three and a half hours to do some dragon dating” in San Antonio, says Craig Pelke, director of ectotherms at the San Antonio Zoo.

They timed it to happen around November and December, which isn’t the breeding season in their native Indonesia, he points out. Keeping a close watch on the two, he says zoo staff recognized their behavior changed around February, and Kristika, the female dragon, looked pregnant.

“Then we started to see the signs that it was time to split them up. Being solitary animals, when they’re all done with each other, it can get really scary,” Pelke says, because the reptiles are known to eat each other.

On March 8, Kristika laid a batch of white eggs. The zoo pulled the eggs for artificial incubation — which typically lasts seven to nine months — and the first few baby dragons began to hatch on Oct. 17. The final dragon made its grand appearance 10 days later.

For Pelke, the babies’ arrival was monumental. He’s always loved dinosaurs, so when he was 4 years old and discovered Komodo dragons while flipping through his family’s encyclopedia, he was instantly fascinated by the gigantic creatures.

“It was always a dream to be able to work with these dragons,” he says.

Adult Komodo dragons can grow to be up to an enormous 10 feet long and are known for their hunting skills and athleticism. The babies, though, start at about 12 to 14 inches long and have to hide to survive, Pelke says.

The skittish dragons instinctively look for trees to climb up once they’ve hatched. They spend about one to two years of their lives in a tree canopy trying to survive from becoming dinner for other animals — and even their own kind.

“When you’re a baby, you want to eat and you want to avoid being eaten,” he says.

Baby Komodo dragons have intense colors and patterns that help with their time camouflaging in the trees, he says. They grow up to be intelligent creatures: The adults know their names and recognize commands — like “a dog in a dinosaur body,” Pelke says.

“They also have different personalities. Some are outgoing. Some are really curious,” he notes. “We’ve already had some babies that as soon as they see us walk into the room, they’re kind of clamoring to get access to us and they want to climb on us.”

The Komodo dragon is at real risk of extinction because of the impacts of climate change. They’re also hunted illegally for their skin. The International Union for Conservation of Nature shifted the status of Komodo dragons from vulnerable to endangered just a couple of months ago.

The reptiles play a critical role in Indonesia as creatures who help keep nature’s fragile balance in check, he says. The dragons keep down populations of wild hogs and timor deer, for example.

If those animals were overpopulated, Pelke says they could destroy botanical life on the Indonesian islands.

“Those ecosystems really do need the Komodo dragon to help out with balance,” he says.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.