strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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The Dragon Mother of King Kong

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 30, 2013

king kongOne fine evening in the mid-1920s, W. Douglas Burden, a New York City gentleman “with sporting tastes and a real interest in natural history,” came home to ask his wife “how she would like to go dragon hunting.”

Burden was a great-great grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, with a bank account to match, and a track record as an adventurer in his own right. So this was the sort of whim he could readily indulge. In 1926, with the blessings of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden and his expedition set out in the S.S. Dog for an obscure island in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where the existence of a huge reptile had been reported.

Burden was seeking what he called “a primeval monster in a primeval setting.” Rumors of dragons had been repeated by Dutch sailors in the East Indies as far back as the 1600s. Finally, in 1910, a Dutch colonial administrator with a double-barreled name, Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, visited the Lesser Sundas, and came back with the skin of a six-foot-long Varanus lizard. Van Hensbroek published the first scientific description and named the species Varanus komodoensis, after the island of Komodo, where it was found.

That account inspired Burden to undertake this expedition in pursuit of bigger specimens. But even very big Varanus lizards did not match his sense of adventure, so he dubbed them “Komodo dragons” instead. The destination also needed to be suitably mythic. When his expedition first laid eyes on the island … to read the rest of this story, click here.


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