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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Clan of the Komodo

"My objective with this piece was to convey the frenzy of a monitor after prey, its open maw shadowing the quarry's every move, the rest of the body seeming to scramble to keep up."

- Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen, on Salvadori's Monitor & Papuan Naked-Tailed Rat

Having spent most of my life in a zoo (or, very briefly, an aquarium) setting, I've learned many lessons, but one has stood out above the others.

There are no uncool animals.

That being said, some are cooler than others.

Every zookeeper or aquarist has a group of animals - or several groups of animals - which fascinate them above all others.  There are lots of crazy cat keepers out there.  Elephant keepers are pretty hardcore too; the one time I was foolish enough to make a disparaging comment about elephants (or what at least seemed to the keepers around me to be disparaging) in a room full of elephant keepers, I barely escaped with my life.  Monkeys?  Some keepers love 'em, other can't stand to work with them.  

I've always been a little fickle in my animal affections, somedays being more interested in one group, other days in another.  I had an antelope phase, a bird-of-prey phase, a duck phase, and, fairly recently, a large rodent phase (porcupines, beavers, capybara).  For a while, I was majorly into storks, and I still have no idea why.

That being said, there are some taxa that I've always gravitated towards.  Chief among these are the varanids, better known as the monitor lizards.

Still not ringing a bell?  It'll probably help if I name-drop the most famous member of the family: the Komodo dragon.

When I was a kid, Komodos were slightly less rare in US zoos than giant pandas.  Today, they are rapidly becoming one of the standard stars of zoo reptile collections, with dozens of US zoos displaying the species. Komodos are the biggest living lizard, an apex predator capable of bringing down a water buffalo.  They're armed with a mouthful of sharp teeth, bear-like claws, and a bite so foul that you'll wish they'd just killed you outright.  They are the stuff of legends.  

With their tremendous size and occasional tendency to eat people, Komodos command a lot of respect from people.  What's less known is that their amazingness extends to the rest of their family.

Scattered across Africa, Asia, and - above all - Australasia, the monitors are, in some respects, the reptilian version of the mammal Carnivores (the order that includes many meat-eating mammals).  The sleek, aquatic Merten's water monitor is a stand-in for the otters.  The pygmy monitors of Australia fill in the niche of the mongooses.  The arboreal Gray's monitor, so different from other monitors with its fruit-based diets, reminds me of a lizard version of the binturong and other civets.  Agile, arboreal crocodile monitors, top-predators of the New Guinea rainforest canopy, make a convincing clouded leopard.  And the Komodo, the powerful ambush predator of the forest and scrub, is a tiger that has swapped its stripes for scales.

Any zookeeper who has seen a monitor at feeding time is unlikely to forget the experience.  Forget about birds and bats, these guys can teach you what it means to fly.  A hungry monitor is like a comet, the mouth streaking towards food, the body trailing behind.  I keep a pair of ridge-tailed monitors - a smaller Australian species - as pets, and it never ceases to amaze me to watch them feed.  Each lizard is about eight inches long, excluding the tail, but leaps about a foot straight up to take a cricket from the forceps (no way am I being dumb enough to put my fingers near their mouths when they're hungry).

Monitors aren't just bad-ass predators... they're SMART badass predators.  They are frequently considered to be some of the most intelligent of reptiles.  Zoo specimens are known to engage in play behaviors and recognize and respond to different keepers.  One study suggested that they even possess the ability to count, differentiating between numbers as high as six.  Heck, I know people who can barely do that.  

Monitors also come in an amazing variety of colors and patterns.  Many are the slate color of the Komodo, but then you have stunning greens, electric blues, and bold yellows.  The crocodile monitor - longer than the Komodo, but far more slender - is a dark hunter green, patterned with yellow spots.  Lace monitors come in a variety of delicate patterns of spots and stripes, yellow or white on blue or black.

Peach-throated monitor lizard at the Brookfield Zoo

It's not uncommon to see monitors in zoos.  It's also not uncommon to see them - especially Niles and savannahs - in pet stores.  This always chills my blood, which is ironic, considering, as I've admitted, I own monitors myself.  That's because I know what a handful my twin terrors can be (the one time I got bitten, that eight-inch lizard had me crawling on the ground, gasping with pain, trying to disengage his tiny teeth and vise-like jaws).  I have seen what a big one - and while not a Komodo, a Nile monitor can still top six feet - can do.  Most of the worst injuries I've seen on reptile keepers haven't been inflicted by crocodiles or venomous snakes, but by monitors.  Their jaws are powerful.  Their claws are sharp. Their tails can lash with amazing speed and strength.  

Besides the potential for injury, monitors have so much intelligence and personality that I hate to think of them under the care of an owner who will mistreat or ignore them.  A friendly, well-trained monitor can act like a big, scaly dog (one that you should always be cautious of, of course).  

A zoo educator handles a monitor lizard for a group of students

I would love to see that way zoos manage monitors, crocodilians, and other reptiles start to resemble they way they manage mammals and birds - training, behavioral enrichment, and larger, more complicated environments.   Perhaps if they are given better chances to highlight their extraordinary behaviors, beautiful appearances, and undeniable charisma, monitor lizards might receive a little more appreciation from the public and bask in their own glory... not just in the shadow of the Komodo.

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