Hello scientist,can the saliva from the Komodo Dragon kill a person or animal and what factors are involved if it does injure?


The saliva from a Komodo dragon can certainly kill an animal as large as a human and often even larger, such as the island's bovine species (I don't know off the top of my head whether they are 'generic' buffalo).

Komodo dragons will often take fairly old carrion, each mouthful of rotting flesh adding to the bacteria that accumulates in the saliva. There can be several dozen to over a hundred different sorts of bacteria living within the stinking maw of the dragon and when a Komodo attacks a living creature, if the sharp teeth of the dragon puncture the skin, the bacteria get into the wound and cause infection. The main cause of death is usually septicaemia (blood poisoning), which can kill a large buffalo in a few days to a week. The Komodo dragon will follow the prey around by trailing it’s scent and then step in to feast when the poor creature is dead or dying.


A minor addition, the serrations on the komodo dragon's teeth have a morphology that allows meat fibres to get stuck in them (try slicing raw meat with a breadknife and you'll see what I mean). This provides a bacterial breeding ground directly on the tooth, so not only is the saliva septic, the teeth are too.

By the way, if you do try cutting raw meat with a breadknife, make sure you clean it REALLY thoroughly afterwards - we wouldn't want anyone getting food poisoning from rotting meat in their bread!

Surprisingly enough (because it contradicts years of conventional wisdom) the Australian zoologist Bryan G. Fry has recently argued that the presence of bacteria in the mouths of Komodo dragons is a "red herring", and that the real damage is done by venom comparable to that present in some snakes. Fry believes that venom may be a very ancient adaptation within squamates (the taxonomic group including lizards and snakes), and that mild venom is much more widespread among both lizards and snakes than anyone would have previously believed. Fascinating stuff, really. Following Paolo's analogy, a monitor tooth is actually a POISONOUS breadknife, definitely not recommended for household use.

At the recent South East Amphibians and Reptiles Conference (a thrilling Saturday near Gatwick International!), we had a presenter who was espousing the work of Fry and that of basal venom. It may be that the presenter did a really bad job of bringing across Fry's work but I was singularly unconvinced by any of the 'evidence' presented and non of the other herp workers I talked to about it found it particularly convincing either. Perhaps Fry's original work is more convincing, I've yet to read it...