The goanna wanted an egg. It had climbed a few metres up the trunk of a large cabbage palm and was looking at me: egg. Its nose pointed down, its eyes looked up, like a begging dog, and – distinctly unlike a dog of any kind – it flicked its forked tongue against the bark: egg. Although I was in possession of a carton, I declined the request. I have seen a goanna (Australian for monitor lizard) eat an egg and they have no idea how to do this in a normal way. They crunch the snack whole, a dull look on their faces, as most of the yolk dribbles down the sides of their mouths.
Of course, the best monitor lizard – and champion of disturbing feeding habits – is the Komodo dragon: a big beast that lives on small islands such as Indonesia’s Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang (50,000 years ago, Komodos lived in Australia, too). As the cult internet comic strip Achewood puts it, “Everyone knows that a Komodo Dragon is the biggest, worst lizard of the modern day.”
What is the Komodo dragon in your mind doing? There are many horrifying scenes to choose from. For example, Sharon Stone’s then-husband was once attacked by a Komodo at the LA Zoo. For me, the most vivid lizard is a giant, buff body, viewed head-on, skin hanging loosely over chunky muscles. From my ur-Komodo’s mouth hang various strands of toxic drool, lightly coated in dust.
They lead a dusty life. Eating a monkey whole – head first, so that halfway through, the monkey’s splayed legs and tail stick out from its jaws – in the dust. An entire horse. A deer. Very occasionally, a human being. Fighting one another, their torsos lifting in a way that makes me certain they are perpetually tensing their cores, forever in a push up, a plank pose: muscles burning, burning, burning.
In one documentary there is a scene in which Komodos tug at the carcass of a buffalo in a way that causes the buffalo’s skinless jaw to open and close, as though it is speaking.
In another, a Komodo takes a single bite out of a buffalo. Days later it dies. The lizard’s saliva was once believed to be so filled with bacteria that it was lethal. But Komodo dragon expert Bryan Fry and his team discovered that Komodos use venom to kill their prey: the toxins stop the wound from clotting and open blood vessels, causing the animal’s blood pressure to drop dangerously.
“Komodo dragons are actually very clean animals,” Fry said at the time.
“After they are done feeding, they will spend 10 to 15 minutes lip-licking and rubbing their head in the leaves to clean their mouth.”
Everywhere the Komodos walk, they do so exaggeratedly, elbow to elbow on one side, then elbow to elbow on another – as though they want to impress upon you that they invented walking.
The females lay up to 30 grapefruit-sized eggs that take eight months to hatch. Then some of the hatchlings die: up to 10% of the adults’ diet will consist of baby Komodos. To protect themselves when eating, the babies will roll in faeces and hide among the rotting intestines of a carcass.
But the cannibalistic adults do look quite endearing with their mouths open: as though they are smiling or very surprised. And even these beasts are hiding a delicate feature: beneath their tough hides lies a fine, intricate “chain mail” made from tiny bones. It is there, from when they reach adulthood, to protect them from each other. Which is sort of sweet, if you think about it.