Such jokers, those Komodo dragons

From Bloomington, Ind., at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society

A young Komodo dragon will spontaneously mouth and paw at a Frisbee and make other gestures that “would be considered play in a dog or cat,” says Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Behaviorists wrestling with the problem of describing and explaining play haven’t paid much attention to reptiles, Burghardt says. Yet for decades, observers have recorded anecdotes of young Komodo dragons doing things that lack obvious utility and suggest whimsical antics. When a Komodo dragon egg hatched at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Burghardt jumped at the chance to make systematic observations as the youngster grew up.

Burghardt and his colleagues worked with zoo staff for 2 years to videotape 31 sessions with the young female Komodo dragon, named Kraken, as keepers put new objects into her enclosure. Besides a Frisbee, the novelties they offered her included plastic rings, a shoe, a bucket, and a tin can.

Kraken typically nudged them with her snout, swiped at them with her paw, and carried them around in her mouth. She treated them differently from her food, and Burghardt says the tapes “disprove the view that object play is just food-motivated predatory behavior.”

The tapes also show Kraken seemingly eager for social play. In one session, she eased up behind caretaker Trooper Walsh, who managed to stand almost still. Kraken then reached up to his rear pocket, pulled out his handkerchief, and stood near him with it in her mouth. He reached to grab it, and the two of them both pulled at it in what Burghardt says looks, even to the trained eye, like someone playing tug-of-war with a puppy.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.