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23 August 2011
Last updated at 01:32
Komodo dragons were first discovered on Indonesian islands over 100 years ago but they have only recently earned the title of the world's largest venomous animal. A crew filming for BBC Two series Natural World followed venom-expert Dr Bryan Fry as he investigated the unique predators.
Dr Fry, from the University of Melbourne, described komodo dragons as possessing an "arsenal" of adaptations that enable them to eat prey as large as buffalo. An expandable throat allows them to ingest large morsels of meat and they can eat up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.
Computer modelling of a dragon's skull - to analyse the stresses encountered during biting - revealed surprising results. The areas of high stress (in red) suggest that the dragons risk breaking their own jaws if they bite down very forcefully.
Instead the dragons have developed a specific technique, using their powerful front legs as leverage to "grip and rip" at their prey with more than 60 razor-sharp teeth. Dr Fry recorded that 90% of komodo dragon attacks on prey, such as deer, resulted in a successful kill.
Until 2009, komodo dragons were widely believed to poison their prey with the harmful bacteria in their mouths. However, Dr Fry suspected that dragons shared a common feature with lace monitors, related lizards known for their venomous saliva.
A magnetic resonance image (MRI) of a komodo dragon's head confirmed that they possess a venom gland (highlighted in red). Analysis of the venom found that it stopped blood from clotting, leading bite victims to bleed to death or contract fatal infections that the dragons could capitalise on.
Komodo dragons are listed as a vulnerable species with only around 4,000 animals inhabiting five Indonesian islands. Komodo - Secrets of the Dragon airs on BBC Two at 2000 BST on Wednesday, 24 August.
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