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2. Komodo Dragon
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The island nation of Papua New Guinea is home to a unique group of kangaroos. Not like the large ground hopping animals found across the Australian outback – these animals are found in the mountain forests. With long tails, a bear-like face and an appearance that is often said to resemble a cross between lemurs and their cousins, the wallaby – they are the tree kangaroos.
A member of the macropod family which includes the wallabies and ground-dwelling kangaroos of Australia – the tree kangaroo spends most of it’s life in high tree tops – often up to 100 feet above the forest floor.
There are believed to be fourteen species of tree kangaroos that inhabit the forests of Papua New Guinea, parts of Indonesia and northeastern Queensland, Australia. Many species are exclusive to their habitat regions.
Some of the known species include the Goodfellows’, the white throated, and Doria’s tree kangaroo. While many species have shades of brown fur, the Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo’s fur is a speckled gray with blackish tips and the underbelly is creamy or sometimes orange in color. A new species known as the golden mantle tree kangaroo was recently discovered in 1990.
The Tenkiles, or Scott’s, tree kangaroos are diurnal and mainly terrestrial, though they can climb to escape predators and danger.
The Matchie’s tree kangaroos are the most commonly found species in zoological facilities and provide much of the information about these endangered animals at large. The Matchie’s species is found natively only on the Huon peninsula of Papua New Guinea and is sometimes referred to as the Huon tree kangaroo.
A second species – the Buergers’ tree kangaroo is also kept in few accredited facilities around the world. The Buergers’ tree kangaroo has a banded and splotchy colored tail, short wooly chestnut brown back fur and yellow undersides. These animals are actually a subspecies of the Goodfellows’ tree kangaroo are are typically considered more difficult to maintain than Matschie’s tree kangaroo, though some have been bred in managed care.
Some tree kangaroos can weigh up to 32 pounds with a head and body length of over 30 inches plus a tail that can double their length. These long, non-prehensile tails help serve as counter-balance as they move among the tree where the spend most of the day. Many species will come down to the forest floor at night to forage, but they never stray far from the trees where they will return and seek refuge from possible danger.
Tree kangaroos differ in several ways from other kangaroos and wallabies, due to adaptations to life in trees. They possess shorter hindlegs and sturdier forelegs than ground-dwelling kangaroos – the tree kangaroo’s front legs are approximately the same length as its hind legs.
They have long, sharp claws on both front and hind feet that help them climb trees with ease, their front claws may be curved which aids in climbing. Patches of roughened skin also help with gripping. Tree kangaroos are able to independently move each toe or finger – a trait that is rare among non-primate mammals.
They also have a modified ankle bone that allows them to rotate their hind feet to turn soles of their feet inwards, tree kangaroos are only existing kangaroos with this ability.
The Matchie’s tree kangaroo is considered to be the best vertical climber of the species, they may leap up to 30 feet between trees and may even jump up to 60 feet to the ground below – without suffering injury.
Though tree kangaroos are quick and agile climbers, they spend much of their life resting in trees between meals. They feed on an assortment of plants, tree bark and leaves – many of which contain tannin which gives some species their rust or golden brown color.
They are generally a solitary species of animal, often ignoring others in the same tree, though males are known to fight over potential mates. Tree kangaroos are usually silent but may produce a tongue-clicking sound to signal agitation or during courtship. They have also been observed swishing their tail side-to-side as a warning signal. Scent marking is also a common activity.
Like many other unique mammals found throughout Australia and nearby regions, tree kangaroos are marsupials. The Matchie’s species have the longest gestation of any known marsupial – and after 40 to 45 days the undeveloped joey is born and must climb up the mother’s belly and into her pouch, where it will latch onto a teat for nursing.
The baby tree kangaroo, also known as a joey, will live up to 10 months in the pouch and even then may return from time to time for the next couple of months to continue nursing while feeding more regularly on solid foods.
Despite many species of tree kangaroo being found in Papua New Guinea and a few smaller surrounding islands, the Bennett’s tree kangaroo is found exclusively in a small range of northern Queensland Australia – the Bennett’s tree kangaroo is the largest tree-dwelling mammal in Australia. Another species, the Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo is found in a nearby region.
Tree kangaroos are very quick moving animals that are often hard to spot in the thick forest regions, this makes identifying and studying them in the wild quite difficult. The typical lifespan of tree kangaroos in the wild is believed to be 10 to 15 years though animals in managed care may live beyond this, according to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo the oldest known tree kangaroo is 27 years old.
Woodland Park Zoo developed the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program to promote and sustain tree kangaroo populations and support local community livelihoods across Papua New Guinea. This accredited zoo is also a leader in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan of Matchie’s tree kangaroo breeding. This ongoing managed program was developed to increase the number and genetic diversity of tree kangaroos in managed care.
Located north of western Australia in one of the most volcanic regions on Earth are 3 Indonesian islands that are home to one of the world’s most powerful reptilian predators. They are the islands of Flores, Rinca and the land that gives name to the world’s largest lizard – Komodo.
There in the rocky valleys and flat savannas of these tropical islands is where the Komodo dragon can be found. Sometimes known natively as “land crocodiles”, these lizards are part of the Varanid family of monitors which are found throughout Africa, southeast Asia, Australia and of course – Indonesia.
These giants may reach a length of 10 feet and with head raised may stand over a foot and half off the ground. Male komodo dragons may weigh up to 200 pounds. – though after a large meal they may weigh much more.
Their skin is covered in osteoderms and said to be like chain-mail. This hardened scale covering has no sweat glands, excess sodium is removed through special glands in their nasal capsules.
Adult komodo dragons are uniformly gray or clay-colored but until the age of four they have much brighter, speckled skin. Their tongue is a light yellow color.
Young komodo dragons typically live in trees where they feed on insects, small lizards, birds and eggs. As the size of the animal increases, so does it’s prey. Large Komodo dragons feed on carrion or hunt animals such as wild boar, sunda deer, water buffalo, large snakes, and occasionally smaller Komodos.
As the top predator of their habitat range, they are opportunistic carnivores that often kill one large prey per month. Komodos are not always successful in taking down prey on the first attempt but venom injected during an attack will often lead to the preys demise – sometimes up to four days later. Multiple komodos will often feast on large kills. Between these big kills they will supplement their diet with smaller prey – like birds and small mammals as well as feed on animal carcasses they may find. They are resistant to harmful bacteria found in the rotting animal flesh.
Komodo dragons rely on their sense of smell to locate carrion and can detect scents up to 3 miles away. Like snakes, komodo dragons possess a Jacobson’s organs in the roof of the mouth – their forked tongue (which lacks tastebuds) collects scent particles in the air then retracts into the mouth where these sense organs stimulate the brain.
They are regular diggers, often carving out resting places or seeking out food such as eggs, snakes, rodents and other lizards buried beneath the ground.
Komodo dragons are one of few venomous lizard species. It was once believed that high levels of bacteria in their saliva was used as an aid in killing prey – however researchers have now learned, that like several monitor lizard species, komodo dragons produce venom toxins in venom glands.
They also have serrated, backward curving teeth which aid in holding onto their victim. Their prey is held (sometimes thrashed) until all movement ceases. Small prey is swallowed whole, usually head first while large prey is sliced in pieces and devoured.
A komodo dragon’s stomach is able to expand large enough to enable them to consume a meal up to 80 percent of their own body weight. When threatened in this gourged state, they may throw up the contents of their stomachs to lessen their weight in order to flee.
Komodo dragons, like other monitor lizards, have a more complex heart structure and blood chemistry than other lizards, this allows them to achieve intense activity – such as attacking large prey – without becoming exhausted.
Large Komodos will often hunt and feed on younger ones. As a defense, the young komodos will often roll in fecal material, thereby acquiring a scent that the large dragons tend to avoid.
Adult males will compete with one another during breeding season. This combat involves using their tails for support as they wrestle in upright positions, grabbing each other with their forelegs and attempting to throw the opponent to the ground. Often time wounds are inflicted and blood is drawn – though they appear to be immune to venom that may be injected from other komodo dragon attacks.
As cold-blooded animals, komodo dragons spend the great part of the day basking – they are most active at morning and dusk. Young animals will often climb trees to rest while large adults remain on the ground and when necessary seek shelter in burrows or under hanging vegetation.
Though these large lizards inhabit the entire island of Komodo (and two other nearby islands) less than 380 square miles is officially protected and designated as Komodo National Park – which was established in 1980. Threats facing the survival of the world’s largest lizard include deforestation due to logging, forest fires created by poachers to drive prey and loss of vegetation (a food source for much of the komodo dragon’s prey).
The first komodo dragon to be placed on public exhibit in the United States occurred in 1934 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Several accredited zoological facilities, such as the Cincinnati Zoo and Zoo Miami and have had successful breeding programs and today many zoos now showcase this powerful and amazing animal.
Wobbegongs are bottom-dwelling sharks found in coastal waters of the Indo-Pacific region, ranging from temperate to tropical. Many species are located along the eastern and southern Australia coast while some distinct wobbegong species are found in the northern waters of the great barrier reef and into the waters of Indonesia.
The wobbegong is one of 7 families of sharks in the order known as carpet sharks. The carpet shark group includes 40 species such as nurse sharks, bamboo sharks, zebra sharks and even the largest fish in the world – the whale shark.
The word wobbegong is believed to be Australian Aboriginal in origin, meaning “shaggy beard” – a reference to the growths around the sharks mouth.
The wobbegong has a flat head and stocky body with a stout tail. It has nasal barbels and dermal lobes forming fringe appendages along the front of its face. The signature facial barbels are often multi-branching and range in numbers from 6-8 on the ornate wobbegong to as many as 30 or more on the tassled wobbegong.
The wobbegong’s distinctive symmetrical and colored patterns on its skin make it one of the most visually stunning of the carpet sharks. Similar in behavior to its relatives the nurse sharks and bamboo sharks, wobbegongs spend much of their time resting on the sea bed. They possess spiracles which allow them to breathe without much movement as they remain rather motionless for extended periods of time.
Each species possess distinctive markings that allow them to blend in with various surroundings from rocky reefs to sea grass beds and sandy bottoms.
The spotted wobbegong has a golden sandy to light green color with a dark saddle across its body and a white irregular ring pattern. Spotted wobbegongs may grow up to 10 feet long, though most average 5 to 6 feet in length.
The ornate wobbegong is typically golden-brown in color, with conspicuous dark rectangular saddles. The lighter spaces between these saddles have dark, light-centered spots. They grow up to 4 feet long.
The tasselled wobbegong has a reticulated pattern of narrow dark lines over a lighter background with large dark spots located at the junction of the lines. In addition, this species is flattened and broad with a head that is slightly wider than its length from the tip of the snout to the fifth gill openings. They are found in Pacific coral reefs around the coasts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. Like the ornate wobbegongs, they are believed to reach up to 4 feet long.
Wobbegongs are carnivorous and as bottom-dwellers they feed primarily on bottom dwelling invertebrates including crabs, lobsters, and octopus. Some wobbegong are even found inside lobster traps by fishermen. Most wobbegongs appear to be nocturnal in nature, resting most of the day and hunting for food at night. The sharks are typically ambush predators, waiting for prey to approach – which are sometimes lured in by their facial appendages.
Wobbegongs strike with lightning speed—extending their jaws, sucking in prey and gulping it down whole. It is believed that the short broad mouth and large broad pharynx aids in sucking in prey. They are more specialized for jaw protrusion than are most other shark species and combined with quick strikes, the enhanced suction force and multiple rows of enlarged fang-like teeth – the wobbegong can deliver a powerful attack on its prey.
Wobbegong have been known to attack humans who may unknowingly approach and startle the camouflaged predator. Often once it bites, the shark tends to hold on which results is serious, though usually not fatal – wounds.
Like some other species of sharks, Wobbegong sharks, are ovoviviparous, meaning the eggs develop and hatch within the females body. Pups are un-nourished while developing inside the mother and often eat unfertilized eggs as well as other pups. As many as 20 or more pups are “live-born” from each litter. Each species varying in length from 6 to 9 inches long at birth.
Currently wobbegong may face many challenges to their future survival – including the external pressures of pollution, a decrease in available prey due to over-fishing and over-hunting for the shark’s meat and its tough skin which is often used to make very durable, decorative leather due to the unique patterning.
Little is known about the lifespan of the wobbegong. However, based on information about sharks in general, it is presumed that in a normal and balanced ecosystem they are relatively long lived animals.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Florida Museum of Natural History
San Diego Zoo Global
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo
University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web
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