If you've visited the Herpetarium recently, you may have noticed a new animal in one of the larger exhibits, along with a "Do Not Disturb" sign. While most adults seem to question what this new addition is, almost every child guesses correctly with "It's a Komodo Dragon!!" That she is...please help us welcome Shrimp to the Memphis Zoo!
Her addition to the collection is a big milestone for the Reptile Department; she was brought here specifically to be part of our recently successful breeding program. This success has been a long time coming, involving many people over fifteen years.
First, a bit of history:The Dragon's Lair exhibit opened with three adult komodos from other zoos in the summer of 1998; the first time Memphis ever housed these impressive reptiles. Some of you may remember Friendty from those early years, as he was famous for being the first male dragon to breed successfully in the US (at the National Zoo). About a year later, we switched komodos around when three were imported from a zoo in Indonesia. These imports are crucial for keeping our captive population from becoming too inbred, or genetically weak. In 2005 we brought the first of our current dragons in from LA, Hollywood Jeff, who was confiscated after being smuggled in from the wild as a hatchling. This made him very valuable to the US breeding program, as he was not related to any of the komodos that were already in captivity. Voltron was brought in (hatched in Honolulu) the following year, and Norberta (hatched in Toronto) the year after that. After a LONG process of introducing animals that could potentially kill each other, we successfully paired Jeff and Norberta. In fact, they got along better than we ever expected and we were able to eventually leave them together 24/7. Once Norberta laid a clutch of eggs (and we went through the fun process of digging them up by hand out of a six foot deep dirt pit) it was another long eight months before we knew we had succeeded. Falkor hatched on October 8th, 2011 (which just happens to be my birthday) as the first ever baby komodo born at the Memphis Zoo. It seems like it's been non-stop since then, and as I write this we are waiting on eggs from our fourth clutch to hatch any day. All of these offspring are being sent to zoos around the country to help educate people about the largest lizard species in the world. Some of them may be involved in breeding programs in the future as well.
Now that we have established ourselves as a breeding facility, the folks in charge of the Species Survival Plan for komodos are giving us the opportunity to help the captive population again. This past August I had the pleasure of traveling to St. Louis with my co-worker to pick up the adorable little dragon called Shrimp. I always thought Norberta was small for her age, but this girl is just tiny! She spent most of her time in an exhibit where she could see the keepers working, so she is very interested in people and not very interested in going outside. Hopefully she will learn to appreciate the joys of lying in the sun next summer, but for now she is perfectly content watching us work in the Herpetarium. At six years old she is ready to breed, and in the spring we will begin introducing her to Voltron, our smaller male. Keep your fingers crossed that we will have another set of dragon parents in the future, and come visit all of our komodos in their nice cozy exhibits this winter!