Inside the dragon gym and spa at Paignton Zoo

2018 07 PZ Luke in dragon enclosure.jpg
(Last Updated On: August 8, 2018)

Paignton Zoo’s Komodo dragon has her own personal gymnasium. In fact, her whole enclosure has been designed to keep her fit and healthy.

It’s all part of a brand new approach to keeping Komodo dragons. This charismatic lizard – recently named Khaleesi in a public vote – has a bespoke enclosure that’s more vertical than horizontal, with ledges, steps and branches to explore. It’s been created to make sure she grows up big and strong.

Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates Luke Harding: “We’re playing our part in the international efforts to conserve this species by caring for this young female dragon and getting her climbing to strengthen her muscles. It’s really important that they develop in the right way in their younger years – this exhibit offers the varied environment needed to maintain muscle condition as they grow older and heavier.” It’s for this reason that the new enclosure is being described as a “dragon gym”.

“The heating and lighting system is new – we’re using multiple heating and lighting sources to try and best replicate the environment the animal would be exposed to in the wild. This includes different types of lights and different types of heaters and heat wavelengths. We change the time of day lights go on and off at different levels to replicate the way the light and heat would move in the wild.

“It’s very much about evidence-based husbandry and working with industry experts. We’re trialling the technology to come up with the best system possible. We record and monitor all our results; this system is also being trialled on our giant tortoises. The aim to achieve the highest level of animal husbandry and the healthiest animals long term.

“It’s energy efficient and targeted. Some heat raises the air temperature and some warms the animal – different heaters with different wavelengths and different roles.” Longwave infra-red heats the environment and the air while shortwave infrared penetrates soft tissue so warms all the animal, not just its skin. Zoo staff are using thermal imaging cameras to monitor the enclosure and the animal.

The theming of the exhibit gives Khaleesi basking areas at different heights and temperatures. Staff can vary temperatures through the day, so she has to move around to thermoregulate.Lizards are essentially solar powered – they charge themselves up by sitting in the sun and converting solar radiation into energy.

Luke again: “She will have to climb like they do in the wild. Komodo dragons actually live in very hilly environments and for the first few years they mainly live up in the trees – this, together with the steep landscape, maintains muscle tone throughout their lives.”

Another notable point about the exhibit is that it’s one of the first to show a dragon with no glass between animal and guest. It means better photos and video – and, as she can hear people and sense what’s going on, more interaction.

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is a registered charity. For more information go or ring 01803 697500.

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