9 Amazing Facts About Komodo Dragons

USO/iStock via Getty Images
USO/iStock via Getty Images

Apart from being Earth’s largest living lizard, behavior like man-eating and grave-robbing are the Komodo dragon’s biggest claims to fame. But did you know that these guys are also surprisingly intelligent—even playful—creatures gifted at both long-distance swims and virgin births? Read on to learn more. 

1. Komodo dragons are also known as oras.

Western scientists didn't find out about the giant reptiles until 1912, but long before they finally showed up on academia’s radar, Komodo Island natives had given them the name ora, which means “land crocodile.”

2. Komodos are excellent swimmers.

Traveling between Indonesian islands is often a necessity for hungry Komodo dragons; the animals are sometimes spotted paddling along miles off shore. 

3. No carcass is safe around a komodo dragon.

Komodo Dragon Eating a Mouse
mjf795/iStock via Getty Images

Snakes and many lizards have forked tongues to pick up microscopic, airborne taste particles. After being exposed to air, the tongue gets retracted and its prongs are inserted into the animal’s Jacobson’s organ (located on the roof of its mouth). This enables the reptile to identify whatever flavors it’s just picked up, which allows Komodo dragons to start tasting a scrumptious carrion dinner from more than two miles away.  

4. George H.W. Bush received a komodo dragon as a gift.

Halfway through his only term, Bush 41 was given an ora male, courtesy of Indonesia’s government, named Naga. While the idea of letting a giant lizard prowl around the Oval Office sounds pretty awesome, the president instead chose to hand him over to the Cincinnati Zoo. After fathering 32 youngsters, the illustrious critter passed away in 2007 at the respectable age of 24.

5. Komodo dragons are venomous.

Ten years ago, scientists believed Komodo dragons had saliva laden with really deadly bacteria, and that bites containing the spit were potent enough to bring down a water buffalo. But that wasn't actually the case: In 2009, biochemist Brian Fry tested this conventional wisdom by hunting for dangerous microorganisms inside several Komodo dragon mouths. Fry learned that, contrary to popular opinion, their chops have proportionally fewer bacteria than most meat-eating mammals do. Furthermore, Fry found no trace of any especially-hazardous ones. What he did find was venom glands. Situated in the lower jaw, these release a nasty cocktail that causes paralysis, extreme blood loss, inadequate clotting, tissue damage, and excruciating pain. Those poor buffalo never stood a chance.

6. Komodos can consume 80 percent of their body weight in one sitting.

Having freakishly-flexible jaws really helps these creatures gorge. As you can see in the clip above, Komodos can swallow smallish animals (like mid-sized piglets) whole.

7. Komodo dragons have killed at least four people in the last five decades.


JudyKennamer/iStock via Getty Images

Mortal encounters between Komodo dragons and humans were documented in 1974, 2000, 2007, and 2009. The 2009 attack involved a man who fell from an apple tree and was mauled by two dragons while lying dazed on the ground. As a general rule, Komodo dragons prefer raiding graves to killing people, so natives frequently pile rocks over their loved ones’ tombs as a deterrent.

8. Female Komodo dragons can reproduce without having sex.

Two Komodo dragons
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Wannabe Komodo dragon moms needn’t wait around for a male to help them. On multiple occasions, captive females have laid eggs that produced healthy babies despite not copulating first. In fact, one mother had never even shared an enclosure with a member of the opposite sex before. Here’s how it works: When no males are around, female Komodo dragons—like certain other lizards—may practice something called parthenogenesis. Basically, this means that, in lieu of sperm, certain egg cells can fertilize each other.

9. Smaller Komodo dragons roll around in feces to avoid getting cannibalized.

Close up head shot of a Komodo Dragon.
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Adults are anything but picky eaters and won’t think twice about devouring their own offspring. Until they grow large enough to fend for themselves, young Komodos keep away from hungry grown-ups by taking to the trees, where they become nimble, branch-climbing predators. Still, this isn’t always enough. When close encounters are imminent, juveniles make themselves as unappetizing as possible by rolling in dung, which not even the most ravenous dragons can stomach.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

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Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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