The Komodo dragon's bite isn't infectious, after all

When I was six, there was one piece of Komodo dragon trivia that I held especially dear. A Komodo's bite, I'd been told, was laced with bacteria that could lethally infect prey. Now, new research reveals this oft-repeated factoid is totally bunk.

For years, Komodo dragons have been thought to have filthy mouths. It was said that rotting flesh from past meals would collect on their teeth and gums, which would in turn accumulate deadly bacteria. This hypothesis gelled with observations made by herpetologist Walter Auffenberg, who, in the 70s and 80s, found that even when Komodo dragons failed to bring down massive prey like water buffalo, a bitten buffalo would often succumb to sepsis within a matter of days. This, researchers believed, suggested the Komodo had not just a venomous bite, but a septic one.

But now, newly published findings reveal that a Komodo dragon's bite is rather ordinary, and in fact no more toxic than that of any other carnivore. The findings were made by a team led by venom researcher Bryan Fry, whose previous investigations have shed light on the Komodo dragon's venomous qualities. Discover's Christie Wilcox has the details:

In a new paper, Fry and his colleagues show that the bacteria present in Komodo mouths are surprisingly ordinary, similar to what scientists find in any carnivore. Most importantly, the oral flora doesn’t posses the pathogenicity required to kill. As for the previous research that found virulent bacteria, the authors note that those species were identified “without the advantage of molecular methods.” Of the 54 that previous research claimed to be “potentially pathogenic,” 33 are actually common microbes and “unlikely to be the cause of rapid fatal infection when present in a wound.”

So then why do water buffalo die of infection after sustaining a Komodo bite? Visit Discover to find out.

Fry's team's findings are published in The Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine.