How to train your dragon

What do you do when a giant carnivorous lizard heads straight for you? Try giving it a good scratch behind the ears

New Scientist, 17th December 2013

YOU would know how it feels to catch a dragon’s eye if you have ever locked gaze with a sparrow that has your sandwich crumbs in its sights. There’s a sense of bright intelligence, at once familiar and oddly alien. That’s fine if the eye belongs to a fluffy little bird, but right now I’m inside the lair of a giant carnivorous lizard. The humid atmosphere isn’t the only thing making sweat course down my temples. I have piqued the curiosity of Raja, a Komodo dragon, and he’s heading straight for me.

My adventure started with some careless talk over a post-work pint with a New Scientist editor. I passed on a snippet I had read recently in a zoo newsletter: that Komodo dragons can be taught to come when you call their name using the same techniques employed in your average dog-training class.

This may sound implausible but then a body of research suggests that cold-blooded, small-brained reptiles are more intelligent than we realised. Some scientists even have tortoises negotiating mazes like lab rats.

Within days I had been sent to London Zoo, which was happy to grant me access to a training session with Raja…


Death by chocolate

Could a love of chocolate ever amount to a fatal attraction? The answer turns out to be yes, but don’t panic.

New Scientist, 18th December 2007

IT WAS a sorry end. Cut down in his prime, the cunning thief lay on the slab, his cold body offering pathologist Brett Gartrell no outward sign of how he had met his maker. Once Gartrell had wielded his scalpel, however, the cause became clear: a belly stuffed with sticky brown gunk. Diagnosis? Death by chocolate.

 (FotoosVanRobin, CC BY-SA 2.0</a )
Cake or death? For some animals, it’s the latter (FotoosVanRobin, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Divine – yes. Delicious – absolutely. But deadly? For some it certainly is. The corpse on Gartrell’s slab belonged not to a human but to a kea, an endangered New Zealand parrot. Like many animals, keas are acutely sensitive to chemicals in chocolate that are harmless to humans in all but huge doses. Scientists are now studying these chemicals, along with other substances in cocoa, hoping to exploit their toxic effects to control pests or microbes…