Komodo dragons hatched at the zoo, a big victory for endangered species | Environment

Herpetologist Craig Pelke has been beaming like a proud new father for about a month now, since the first of 10 Baby Komodo Dragons pierced his shell at the San Antonio Zoo.

When the last of the rare lizards hatched 10 days after the first, Pelke, who is a reptile specialist and ectotherm manager for the zoo, said he and his team felt tremendous relief.

“They are active and curious and grow very fast,” he said. “We all feel the magic here. “

Komodo dragons are the largest of the 4,675 species of lizards, weighing around 150 pounds. Their status changed last year from vulnerable to endangered, meaning they are on the brink of extinction.

“It’s like a dream to have 10 little babies running around,” said Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. “This is another important step forward in ensuring the survival of the Komodo dragon. “

Morrow said he was in awe when he visited the dragon nursery enclosure in the reptile house shortly after the first eggs hatched.

“They are really beautiful – I was surprised at how green, shiny and vibrant they are,” he said, noting that baby lizard scales darken as they grow older.

Less than 1,400 mature Komodo dragons are estimated to exist on a handful of Indonesian islands – their only natural habitat – and in zoos, he said, making the arrival of hatchlings last month even more so. monumental.

Rising ocean waters, habitat loss and climate change have threatened their numbers, said Pelke, 53.

The most recent brood, the last of which was born on Oct. 27, includes four females and two males (tested for sex during incubation) and four whose sex has yet to be determined, Pelke said, adding that ‘they will all be sent to other zoos when they are older.

Komodo dragons are generally solitary creatures and need their own enclosures, he explained. They are known to cannibalize each other, with young people being more vulnerable.

“It’s been an exciting time for us – but every day is exciting when you work with what I call living dinosaurs,” he said, noting that the fossils show that dragons share a common ancestor with them. dinosaurs from 100 million years ago and are related to a large species of lizard that evolved in Australia.

The San Antonio Zoo has always supported the conservation of Komodo dragons and worked with the species survival program, Morrow said.

“We are raising Komodo dragons in the hope that we can release them into the wild one day,” he said. “It is a great victory for the species that we were able to obtain 10 baby dragons.”

He said he was amazed to see them run and frolic.

“You feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you look at them,” Morrow said.

The young dragons are the first at the zoo since 2018, when four babies were successfully hatched, he said.

The new brood is not yet ready for public view, but the newborns have helped make up for some past losses, Pelke said.

In 2013, an adult female Komodo dragon and five other reptiles were killed when an electrical fire broke out in the zoo’s two-story reptile house. Then in 2016, a dragon on loan from the zoo to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center was euthanized after complications from illness.

“The fire happened shortly after I started working here,” Pelke said. “It was devastating.”

When he was 4, Pelke said he came across pictures of Komodo dragons while browsing his parents’ encyclopedias and had been in love ever since.

“Growing up, it became my dream to work with them,” he said. “It’s a joy to see them now every day when I come to work.

At the San Antonio Zoo, Pelke cares for two adult Komodo dragons: Bubba, a 27-year-old male, and Kristika, an 11-year-old female. Bubba has arthritis and is retired from breeding, so the zoo brought in a male named Boga from the Houston Zoo last December for a “speed dating” with Kristika, he said.

“I chaperoned the first few visits in case things didn’t go well,” he said.

He quickly realized that there was no need to worry. The short dragon dating sessions went so well that weeks later Kristika and Boga could be together in the same enclosure 24/7, Pelke said.

“Boga was gaga around her and she was receptive to having a male for breeding,” he said.

When Kristika grew up in February and it was obvious she was carrying eggs, there were a few minor fights between the two and the two were no longer interested in each other, Pelke added.

“The romance was over, so we called Houston in February and told them we’re bringing Boga home,” he said.

On March 8, another guard noticed a white lightning flash as Kristika was digging a hole – something she had been doing for months in preparation for laying her eggs, Pelke said.

“She laid all of her eggs along the wall of the pen, about two feet deep, and then covered them,” he said. He and his team distracted Kristika so they could retrieve the eggs and put them in an 85-degree incubator backstage at the Reptile House.

“Each egg was approximately five inches long and three inches wide,” Pelke said. “They were 22. Not all made it, but 10 is a good number. We continued to check their viability every step of the way.

He said it took 223 days for the first dragon to cut through its tough shell using its “egg tooth” – a sharp tooth that falls out after the baby lizard breaks free.

“Each was about 12 inches long,” Pelke said, adding that the lizards were microchipped so they could be distinguished from each other.

“Some of them are already very outgoing and will crawl on you to watch you, and others will run and hide when we get to their enclosure,” he said.

Baby dragons are currently on a diet of mealworms, cockroaches and crickets, and as they grow they will grow into large rats, chickens and fish, Pelke said. Adult dragons are typically 8-10 feet long.

Giant lizards have mild venom, extremely sharp teeth, and a strong bite. He and the other keepers always work as a team so that one person can observe the Komodo dragon while the other takes care of the chores in the enclosure, Pelke said.

“Kristika doesn’t let us get very close, but Bubba loves having a whole body massage,” he said. “We always make sure to respect their individual personalities.

Before they hatched, there were 123 Komodo dragons in North American zoos, Pelke said.

“We are really excited to add 10 more to this group,” he said. “It’s wonderful to take their numbers the other way around.”

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