By JESSICA WELSHANS
LLENWOOD - The Komodo dragon is the world's largest lizard. They can reach lengths of 9 feet and are the top predator of the reptilian world. Adults can weigh up to 300 pounds.
The dragon is named for a cluster of volcanic islands - its original habitat - in Indonesia.
On June 14, Clyde Peeling's Reptiland on Route 15 opened its new exhibit, which enables the public to see its two Komodo dragons.
Inside, lush green vegetation is scattered throughout a dirt floor, mimicking the animal's natural island environment.
Large rocks serve as basking areas. The reptiles lay on them to soak up the heat from lamps in the ceiling.
It's often 95 to 120 degrees inside the exhibit, which mimics the heat of the Komodo Islands.
"Used to be zoos couldn't keep them alive and they couldn't understand why. They finally they discovered they needed intense heat," said Clyde Peeling, owner and creator of Reptiland. "Then they began to breed them."
Reptiland hopes to become one of those zoos that can successfully breed Komodos.
A waterfall flows down one of the rocky outcroppings and ends in a large bathing pool. The animals even have access to mud banks.
"Visitors will experience about as close as one can get if one would visit Komodo Island," Peeling said.
The two dragons housed in the exhibit are brother and sister. They will be 3 years old in August and are about 5 feet in length. The male is a bit over that.
When the hatchlings arrived at the zoo, Peeling said the zoo owners and staff committed themselves to building what he described as a "first-class facility" for them. Construction began in the fall of 2011.
The zoo had its name on a waiting list to receive dragon hatchlings for about six years before it finally received a call from the Los Angeles Zoo, asking if they still wanted two.
"We said yes," Peeling said.
Komodo dragons are very keen hunters that often lie in wait for their prey, which can be as large as a deer, goat or even a water buffalo.
"They are top predators, like the big cats of the mammal world," Peeling said.
Video screens above the large panes of the exhibit show visitors one such attack. To accompany the video is a lifesize version of faux water buffalo bones inside the exhibit.
Interpretive panels teach guests all about the dragon - its habitat preference and eating, nesting and breeding habits.
If visitors are lucky, they may find the siblings sparring, which is a common activity.
Part of the right-hand side of the exhibit still is under a bit of construction for an area that will hold giant tortoises.
"Eventually if we are successful breeding dragons, this will be totally devoted to them," Peeling said.
The Komodo Dragon Species Survival program's committee told the zoo not to get too attached to one dragon or the other.
"When they reach sexual maturity, they will be swapped out for a non-related dragon," Peeling said, so the zoo can try it's hand at breeding.
Peeling said he considers the Komodo dragon a flagship species in the reptile world, one he feels is important to feature at the zoo.
"They are the ones people know and remember seeing on TV. It's a lizard that people recognize the name and they have seen them enough on film, they recognize their swagger, the way they walk. It seems appropriate that Reptiland, who specializes in reptiles, would have dragons," he said.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau.
"We are so grateful to them for taking on this sponsorship," Peeling said.
The Komodo dragon exhibit is included with regular admission to the zoo and is open now. For more information, visit reptiland.com or call 800-737-8452.