The Komodo dragon has powerful venom that helps make it the top predator on the few Indonesian islands it inhabits. But it also likes to play and its blood could help develop new antibiotics.
A large, stocky lizard ambles to a shaded spot near a watering hole and lies patiently in wait. It blends in with the surrounding vegetation and as a water buffalo stops for a drink, the reptile explodes into action, its sharp claws and teeth tearing into the prey.
Known as Komodo dragons, these monitor lizards are near perfect predators and will eat anything from carrion to humans on the Indonesian islands they've made home.
They can reach up to 10 feet (three meters) in length and achieve an adult weight of around 300 pounds (136 kilograms), making them the heaviest lizards on earth. Nonetheless, over short distances, they can run as fast as man.
But their speed and size are only part of what makes them dangerous. Having torn into their prey, they inject it with powerful, anticoagulant venom that lowers blood pressure. Even if the victim manages to escape the Komodo dragon's jaws, it will bleed out as it tries to find a place of safety.
Once the dragon has secured and slain its prey, it settles in for a huge feed. It can consume up to 80 percent of its own body weight in a single sitting and only needs to eat every few weeks. The rest of the time, it does what lizards do best — lounge around in the sun.
The stuff of nightmares though they may seem, Komodo dragons aren't all claws and sharp teeth. Researchers believe they also like to engage in play similar to that of cats and dogs. One female at the Smithsonian Zoo in the US capital Washington D.C., alerted researchers to this behavior when she developed a close bond with her keepers, according to Science Blogs.
Kraken, as the dragon is called, would tug at shoe laces and objects in her keepers' pockets, so staff at the zoo began to introduce boxes, blankets, frisbees and other items. A study of her behavior concluded that she was playing with the objects, indicating that such reptiles have much more complex cognition than previously thought.
Female Komodo dragons are among the tiny number of vertebrates that can reproduce asexually. They do so through parthenogenesis, which sees the mother's half set of chromosomes double up to create a full set, so no sperm is needed.
Zookeepers observed asexual reproduction in two females at zoos in the United Kingdom in 2006. The females had been kept separate from their male counterparts but — to the surprise of their keepers — became pregnant. A genetic analysis of the females showed no male had fertilized the eggs.
Researchers believe the Komodo dragons evolved this ability because of their remote natural habitat. It may have helped them to spread to other islands in the Indonesian archipelago, wrote Scientific American at the time of the discovery.
It also seems that the Komodo dragon has at least one other trick up its scaly sleeve. Or between its scaly jaws. When scientists realized the animal's saliva is teeming with harmful bacteria that don't seem to affect it, they started looking to the animal to help develop new antibiotics capable of fighting multi-drug resistant superbugs.
A 2017 study carried out by scientists at George Mason University in Virginia identified 48 protein-like compounds that fight bacteria in the lizard's blood. They created a synthetic compound based on one particular molecule with antimicrobial effects, which they hope could provide the basis for future antibiotics.
A lover of dark cellars
This four-spotted-ichneumon wasp likes to spend the cold winter in caves, mines and cellars. It needs a frost free environment to survive the winter. By selecting this insect to be the "cave animal of 2017" Germany's speleologists want to highlight the fact that there are many different species who need access to such structures when they retreat underground.
An omnipresent house-dweller
Germany's arachnologists put their focus on this cute creature: Many of us have likely met the walnut orb-weaver spider at some point - around the garden or house. It loves to dwell in old masonry or in the bark of old trees or dead wood. Its cobwebs are large and beautiful: up to 50 inches in diameter.
Cute and elegant - but often persecuted
The reptile of the year has only tiny remnants of legs, which are hardly visible. That's why many people think it is a snake - and often even kill the creatures. Blindworms are defenseless but not blind. The name derives from Old High German and refers to the shiny - metal like scaly dress. It's reflections "blind" the observer.
A fluffy bird of prey
The tawny owl is the bird of the year 2017. It usually nests in holes of trees or buildings. It's favorite environment are forests with old trees. That's why Germany's environmental protection association NABU selected the bird to advocate the protection of old parks and forests. By the way: tawny owls can also be found nesting in some barns. That doesn't make them barn owls, though.
Watch out, little mouse, be sure...
...that the owl doesn't catch you. At this time of year, the hazel dormouse is in hybernation. But, when it gets warmer, it will enter the limelight as the "wild animal of 2017". The German Foundation for Wild Animals selected the cute little rodent because it is an endangered species.
Flat as a flounder
The German Sport Fishing Association decided to name this creature fish of the year. The flounder is highly mobile, roaming around the seabed of the Baltic and North Sea - and beyond. Fishermen want to alert the public to the pollution of the sea as well as to dangers to the species by underwater construction, which restricts its freedom of movement.
A bee with red pants
The Wild Bee Register chose this mining bee for 2017. Andrena hattorfiana mining bee is the perfect ambassador to show the world we need to make our landscapes more bee-friendly, the jury said. Not only is the lower body of this solitary bee coloured red - so are its packs of pollen, which it collects exclusively from certain flowers: Knautia arvensis, Scabiosa columbaria and Centaurea species.
A winged monster
The territory of the mantis is moving farther north. While looking meditative, this insect has some scary habits - like the female eating its husband after having had sex - a sort of dowry. The panel, however, decided to name it the "insect of the year" in order to honor this "fascinating representative of it's species" and to "debunk prejudice."
Germany's odonatologists selected the common clubtail as "dragonfly of the year". The insect represents a whole group of dragonflies which need bodies of running water as a habitat. Just 20 years ago, the species was listed as endangered. Now it is doing better - proof, that measures to renew and protect tiny streams and rivers have had some lasting effect.
Where are the clouds?
The pale clouded yellow does not really look pale, does it? And also the clouds are difficult to find. Anyway, it is the butterfly of 2017. This species loves blossoming meadows. Its favorite dish are flowers of alfalfa and clover. The main enemy of this butterfly is intensive agriculture with monotonous plants.