January 24, 2013
Mr. Safina, a local guide working at Komodo National Park, took a particular relish in describing the way a Komodo dragon’s strong jaws can snap a man’s leg in two. He’d lived on Rinca – a speck of land off Indonesia’s Flores Island, and one of the five places Komodo dragons reside – his whole life, and he was used to the various horror stories that surfaced every now and then after a tourist wandered off the trail or a kid got ambushed while playing in the bush. Standing in front of an assembly line of water buffalo, deer and wild horse skulls – dragon chow – Mr. Safina laughed while gesturing to a row of little wooden crosses stuck in the nearby mud. On each stick, a date and a foreigner’s name was scrawled in white paint. “Those are tourist graves!” Mr. Safina joked. “No really, they’re actually just baby mangrove markers that tourists bought to restore the forest. Now, are you ready to go see the dragons?”
Like so many other tourists, for me, a trip to Indonesia was not complete without a detour to see the world’s largest lizard in its natural habitat. (Read Brendan Borell’s dispatch from his trip to Komodo Island, as featured in our special “Evotourism” issue of Smithsonian magazine.) In recent years, visitors have increasingly flooded this corner of Indonesia, drawn in by the thrill of brushing close to something wild and dangerous. Dragons are not to be taken lightly: male lizards can grow up to 10 feet long, weigh 150 pounds and eat up to 80 percent of their own body weight in one sitting. Though attacks are exceptionally rare, they do occasionally occur, mostly when a park guard lets his focus slip for a moment, or a villager has a particularly unlucky day.
Here are some of the most infamous attacks, as described by Mr. Safina and corroborated by media reports:
A Tragic Playdate
In 2007, a dragon killed an 8-year-old boy on Komodo Island, marking the first fatal attack on a human in 33 years, the Guardian reported. The attack took place in March’s dry season, so rangers speculate that the murderous lizard may have been particularly hungry given that the watering holes – and the prey that gather there – had dried up. The dragon lunged when the boy went behind a bush to use the bathroom, MSNBC writes.
Mr. Safina recalls the boy’s friends – who had been playing together in the scrubland near their village – rushing to get help from their parents. According to the Guardian, the boy’s uncle came running and threw rocks at the lizard until it released his nephew. While the Guardian writes that the boy died from massive bleeding from his torso, Mr. Safina recalls the boy being bitten in half.
In light of the tragedy, park wardens launched an island-wide hunt for the man-eating lizard, though whether or not these efforts produced results remains unclear.
Shipwrecked with Dragons
In 2008, a group of SCUBA divers found themselves swept from waters near their boat by the Flores region’s infamously strong current. After spending 10 hours spinning in the tide, around midnight the group washed up on the beach of what seemed like a deserted island, approximately 25 miles from where their ordeal had begun. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had found their way to Rinca Island, where an estimate 1,300 dragons live.
The attacks began almost immediately, the Telegraph reports. A relentless lizard repeatedly came at a Swedish woman, who smacked it with her diving weight belt. It chewed at the lead belt while other divers threw rocks at its head, she said, all the while eyeing her bare feet.
For two days and two nights, the traumatized divers contended with dragons and the tropical heat, surviving off of shellfish they scraped from rocks and ate raw. Finally, an Indonesian rescue crew spotted the diver’s orange emergency floats spread out on the rocks. Though in shock, the group rehydrated at the local hospital on Flores Island and celebrated their survival at the town’s Paradise Bar.
Death in the Garden
In 2009, 31-year-old Muhamad Anwar set out to gather sugar apples from an orchard on Komodo Island. A misstep that sent him falling from the tree proved to be his undoing. Two Komodo dragons were waiting below, and sprang on Anwar. His neighbors heard the commotion, and ran to his rescue minutes later. By the time they arrived, however, Anwar had already suffered fatal injuries, and was bleeding from bites to his hands, body, legs and neck, the Guardian reports. Anwar died shortly after the attack, in a clinic on Flores Island.
Other accounts, however, contest some of these details. CNN writes that Anwar – a fisherman – was actually trespassing on the island, and was in an area forbidden for people to enter. This account also reports that Anwar bled to death on the way to the hospital, and was declared dead upon arrival. Even if CNN got this right and Anwar was guilty, however, death by dragon seems an overly steep punishment for eating a bit of forbidden fruit from the garden of Komodo.
Dragon Under the Desk
In 2009, Maen, a fellow guide like Mr. Safina, headed to the staff office as he would any other morning. Like all the other buildings on Rinca Island, Maen’s unit sat on stilts, and hungry dragons would often gather below to wait for the occasional food scrap. On this morning, however, Maen sensed that he was not alone. Just settling in at his desk, he looked down. At his sandled feet lay a dragon, peering back up at him.
As it turned out, one of the cleaning crew had left the office door open the night before and the hungry predator had crept in, likely in search of food. Heart pounding, Maen attempted to slowly withdraw his leg from the dragon’s vicinity. But he moved too quickly, cueing the motion-sensitive carnivore to lunge. The dragon chomped down on Maen’s leg, clenching its jaw shut. Maen kicked at the dragon’s neck, then grabbed its jaws with his hands and wrenched its mouth open, slicing open his arm in the process.
Although Maen shouted for help, most of the rangers were in the cafeteria and could not hear his screams. Only one picked up on the noise, and came to investigate.
“I shouted and he came to help me but he didn’t like to come up because the dragon was still moving around,” Maen explained to travel writer Michael Turtle, of Time Travel Turtle. “Then he saw the blood on the floor and he got everyone from the kitchen. All the people come running here, but other dragons follow along as well.”
The dragons – which can smell blood and the scent of death from nearly 6 miles away – followed the crowd. Some rangers fended off the would-be feeding frenzy, while a couple others darted into Maen’s office to help their colleague fight free from his attacker. Maneuvering their injured friend through the pack of dragons waiting outside, they managed to carry him to the island’s dock, where he was rushed to Flores Island’s hospital. The injuries were too much for the small medical center to contend with, however, and Maen wound up being flown to Bali for six hours of emergency treatment and 55 stitches, MSNBC reports. All in all, it took him six months to recover from his brush with the dragon.
Despite the encounter, Maen went back to work, although he only stays indoors now so he does not have to deal directly with the animals. “The dragon, I can’t remember which one, he’s still alive,” he told Turtle. “But I think now he’ll be bigger. If he had a bigger neck then, I couldn’t have hold it open.”
Horror in Hollywood
Dragon attacks can occur outside of Komodo National Park, too. More than 50 zoos around the world keep the animals as attractions. In 2001, Phil Bronstein, an investigative journalist formerly married to actress Sharon Stone, suffered an unfortunate encounter with a Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo. Stone had arranged a private visit to the zoo’s dragon pen as a present for her husband, who, according to a Time Magazine interview with Stone, had always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close. Stone described the incident:
Phil didn’t know where we were going or why we were going there. It was a complete surprise. So we came around the corner and he was like, ‘Oh my god this is so fabulous, I’ve always wanted to see this.’ And the zookeeper said, ‘would you like to go in the cage? It’s very mild mannered. Everybody goes in there. Kids pet him. It’s fine.’
Bronstein accepted the invitation and went into the dragon’s cage with the zoo keeper. The lizard began licking at Bronstein’s white shoes, which the keeper thought must remind the animal of it’s white rat meals. Following the keeper’s advice, Bronstein removed his shoes and socks to avoid tempting the lizard. Then, as he moved into a better position to take a photo with the animal, it lunged.
So there was that hideous moment where the three of us… It’s such a break in reality, it’s so inconceivable that it’s happening, but there’s that moment of stillness where you just stare in disbelief. Then Phil screamed and we heard this crunching sound.
Bronstein managed to pin the lizard’s head down with his other foot, but the animal began jerking back and forth in an attempt to maul and eat its prey. Children gathered around the cage’s glass wall, Stone recalled, taking in the spectacle.
Bronstein managed to wrench the dragon’s jaw’s open and throw it from his foot, then dragged himself out of the cage as the lizard came at him from behind. The top half of Bronstein’s foot was gone, Stone said, and he was covered in scratches from the animal’s lunges at his back. Bronstein survived the incident and did not press charges, though Stone complained that the zoo allegedly continued to allow close-up encounters with dangerous animals following the incident.
January 5, 2012
When we last saw University of Washington ecologist Joshua Tewksbury, in the April 2009 issue of Smithsonian, he was bouncing along the back roads of Bolivia, accompanied by our writer Brendan Borrell, in search of chili peppers. He was hoping to answer what should have been a simple question: Why are chilies spicy?
Capsaicin, the molecule that gives chilies their heat, it turns out, helps protect chili fruits from fungal rot and munching rodents without deterring the birds that the plant needs to distribute the seeds in the fruit.
But that leads to a new question—why aren’t all chili peppers hot? Tewksbury’s lab has an answer to that, too, in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
David Haak, then a graduate student in Tewksbury’s lab and now a post-doc at Indiana University, studied Capsicum chacoense, a species of wild chili in Bolivia that occurs either in populations of only hot chilies or in mixed populations with hot and mild fruits. Haak, Tewksbury and their colleagues found that in the wettest parts of their research area, only hot chilies grew. The driest places, though, were home to mixed populations, with only 15 to 20 percent of the plants producing spicy fruits.
The researchers collected hot and mild fruits from three sites in their study area, spanning the range of rainfall and population types. They grew the seeds in the lab, giving the plants either plenty of water–mimicking the wettest areas in which the plants grew–or not enough water, as in the dry areas.
Both mild and spicy plants grew well when there was plenty of water, the researchers found. And there was no cost to producing lots of capsaicin–spicy plants produced just as many seeds as mild ones. But because Fusarium, the fungus that attacks chili plants in Bolivia, likes wet conditions, the mild plants would be more vulnerable and not able to survive. That’s why spicy chilies dominated the wetter areas of Bolivia, Haak and his colleagues concluded.
When the plants were subjected to drought-like conditions, though, spicy plants produced only half the number of seeds as the mild ones. GrrlScientist at Maniraptora: Tastes Like Chicken explains:
Plants lose water through microscopic pores in their leaves and stems, known as stomata. During the day, plants release oxygen to the environment in exchange for carbon dioxide through their stomata, but this vital gas exchange comes at a price: water loss. Knowing that the density of stomata on a plant’s leaves directly affect water loss, the team compared stomata density from 30 age- and height-matched pungent and non-pungent chili plants.
They found that pungent plants have a 40 percent greater stomata density on their leaves than do non-pungent plants. Even after cross-breeding pungent with non-pungent plants and then identifying whether the fruits were pungent, the team found that the pungent crossbred chilis still had a greater stomata density than non-pungent crossbreds.
Because the spicy plants lose more water, they’re not able to produce as many seeds. And with Fusarium not as big of a problem in the dry conditions and the mild plants’ greater ability to hold onto water and produce more seeds, those plants are able to thrive in the driest conditions and easily outgrow their spicy brethren there.
December 29, 2011
Is your office rather empty this week? Looking for something to read to fill the time? How about some great science and nature stories from Smithsonian? Here are my ten favorites from the past year:
Tracking the Elusive Lynx (February): Follow U.S. Forest Service biologist John Squires as he tracks the rare and maddeningly elusive “ghost cat” high in the Garnet Mountains of Montana.
Nothing Can Stop the Zebra (March): A 150-mile fence in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana appeared to threaten Africa’s zebras, but nearly a decade later, researchers breathe a sigh of relief.
Something New Under the Sun (April): Scientists are using a host of satellites, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory, to probe deep beneath the surface of our nearest star to calculate its profound effect on Earth.
A Triumph in the War Against Cancer (May): Oncologist Brian Druker developed a new treatment for a deadly blood cancer, chronic myeloid leukemia, which has transformed cancer medicine.
Swimming With Whale Sharks (June): In this excerpt from Juliet Eilperin’s book Demon Fish, wildlife researchers and tourists head to a tiny Mexican village to learn about the mystery of the largest fish in the sea.
The Beer Archaeologist (August): By analyzing ancient pottery, and collaborating with the brewmasters at Dogfish Head in Delaware, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the libations that fueled civilization.
The Jaguar Freeway (October): Sharon Guynup travels deep into the Amazon to explore a bold plan for wildlife corridors that would connect populations of jaguars from Mexico to Argentina and could mean the big cat’s salvation.
A Buddhist Monk Saves One of the World’s Rarest Birds (October): High in the Himalayas, the Tibetan bunting is getting help from a very special friend.
Defending the Rhino (November): A rumor that rhino horn had miraculously cured a VIP in Vietnam of terminal liver cancer caused demand, and the price, for the horns to soar. Now police and conservationists in South Africa are pitting technology against increasingly sophisticated poachers.
The Sperm Whale’s Deadly Call (December): Scientists studying the leviathan in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez have discovered that the massive mammal uses elaborate buzzes, clicks and squeaks that spell doom for the animal’s prey.
December 27, 2011
In Greek mythology, Echidna was half snake and half woman, and she was the mother of all monsters. The animal echidna, with its stocky body covered in defensive spines, doesn’t look much like a monster, but as a type of mammal called a monotreme, it does share features with both snakes and humans. Like reptiles, echidnas lay eggs–just one a year–but they keep that egg and the resulting baby, called a puggle, in a pouch, like many marsupials do. And like all mammals, that baby will lap up milk until it grows old enough to eat solid food.
Also known as “spiny anteaters,” echidnas come in two varieties. The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) lives throughout Australia and New Guinea and is well adapted to a wide range of habitats, including deserts and rain forests. Its long-beaked cousin (Zaglossus bruijni), however, is found only in the tropical rain forests of New Guinea. These rare animals are officially endangered, their numbers brought low because of land clearing and hunting made easier with dogs and guns–the people of New Guinea consider the echidna, roasted over the coals of a fire, a delicacy.
The first western person to encounter an echidna and write about it was William Bligh, infamous captain of the Bounty. In 1792, his ship stopped in Tasmania on its way to Tahiti. On February 7 he wrote:
An animal shot at Adventure Bay. It had a Beak like a Duck – a thick brown coat of Hair, through which the points of numerous Quills of an Inch long projected these very sharp – It was 14 inches long & walked about on 2 legs. Has very small Eyes & five claws on each foot – Its mouth has a small opening at the end of the Bill & had a very small tongue.
The ship’s officer, George Tobin, who shot the poor animal reported: “The animal was roasted and found of a delicate flavour.”
Echidnas are as weird as Bligh reported all those years ago. The animal uses its snout, or “beak,” to unearth termites, ants and worms that it laps up with its long tongue. An echidnas has no teeth, though, so it has to use its tongue to grind its food against the roof of its mouth, turning it into a paste it can swallow.
An echidna isn’t good at running. It has short legs that, in the rear, point backwards to help it dig. An extra-long claw on one toe allows them to clean between their spines. If an echidna encounters a predator or enemy, it won’t run away or fight. Instead, it will curl into a ball, sharp spines pointing out, sometimes wedging itself into a space beneath a rock or burrowing into the soil to escape predators such as dogs and eagles.
The echidna isn’t the world’s only monotreme. Do you know the other?
December 20, 2011
Scientists have long used the skeletons of animals to study the relationships among different species. French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1555 included an engraving of a human skeleton beside a bird skeleton in his History of the Nature of Birds to emphasize similarities. Nearly 200 years later another French naturalist, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, compared the skeletons of humans and horses. He wrote in 1753:
Take the skeleton of a man. Tilt the pelvis, shorten the femur, legs, and arms, elongate the feet and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws while shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine, and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse.
Charles Darwin also used skeletons of living species–along with live and taxidermied specimens and fossils–as he developed his theory of natural selection.
It would appear that skeletons, then, would be a great tool for teaching evolutionary theory. But I wasn’t expecting them to be so beautiful.
The first thing you notice when you see a copy of Evolution by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu are the photographs. One of my magazine colleagues called these stark black-and-white images of animal skeletons, by Patrick Gries, “science porn.” An artist friend drooled over the beauty in the imagery. (You can see four examples from the book in our photo gallery.) It could be incredibly easy to own this book and never read the text.
But that would be a shame. The book, brilliantly translated by Linda Asher from the original French, is organized into 44 easy-to-read essays about various topics in evolution, from history to modern theory, each illustrated by a set of skeleton photographs. The co-evolution of predator and prey species, for example, includes images of a leopard skeleton attacking a screwhorn antelope, a golden eagle swooping down on a rabbit and a red fox pouncing on a common vole. The text is full of details and stories that will be new even to readers who are familiar with the topic of evolution. But everything is explained well enough that those who have not read much about evolution before will not be lost.
Evolution may seem familiar; in 2007, the book was released in large format and quickly sold out after a selection of its images ran in the science section of the New York Times. This new version is a much more shelf-friendly and reading-friendly size, and it includes a handful of new images. The book would make a great last-minute holiday gift for the science or art lover on your list or just a fine addition to your own library.
(I can hardly bring up the topic of evolution without mentioning Smithsonian magazine’s January issue, now online. With it, we created something called Evotourism–a new type of travel focused on evolution. We’ve started off with 12 destinations, from the Jurassic Coast of England to Australia’s Kangaroo Island. You can learn about evolution by digging for your own fossils, viewing some of the world’s weirdest species ever to evolve, even helping scientists study the co-evolution of a predator and its prey. And if you’ve got your own Evotourism suggestions, we want to hear them.)