The World’s Most Popular Lizard: The Komodo Dragon

Israeli scientists examine Wikipedia views of reptile entries.

Komodo dragons feeding on meat at Prague Zoo.
Petr David Josek , AP

The komodo dragon, a lizard whose habitat is smaller than a British county, is the most popular reptile in the world, sharing the top spots with other reptiles that are poisonous and dangerous, including alligators and poisonous snakes. This emerges from an analysis of Wikipedia views of reptile entries conducted by scientists at Tel Aviv University and Oxford University.

The analysis was published last week in the journal Biological Conservation. The researchers wanted to investigate the cultural interest in reptiles and try to find a link between that interest and nature preservation policies. They examined 55 million views in 2014 and how they were divided between the more than 10,000 reptile species with Wikipedia entries. They found that more than half of the views were of only 82 species.

The komodo dragon, with 3.6 percent of all views, is the largest lizard in the world and lives on a few Indonesian islands; it is carnivorous and hunts and ambushes its prey. It is followed on the list by the common European adder; the saltwater crocodile, which lives primarily in Southeast Asia; the black mamba snake from Africa and the King cobra snake, which is found predominantly in Southeast Asia. Of the top 10, only one species is not a predator or poisonous – the green iguana.

All told, it seems that risk and an impressive appearance is what attract readers’ attention. Another measure of interest is whether the species is endangered.

Geography also influences interest in reptiles. In the German version of Wikipedia, the most popular species were the poisonous snakes found in northern Europe. In the Japanese edition, they were the vipers of East Asia and in the Spanish version it was the green iguana, which is found in South America.

The only reptile page in the Yiddish Wikipedia is devoted to the Eretz-yisraeldicker viper - the Palestine viper. In the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia the komodo dragon is in first place, followed by local species like the Palestine viper, the Mediterranean house gecko and the Greek tortoise.

The use of Wikipedia makes it possible for the first time to follow the preferences of millions of people with regard to thousands of species on a global level and across languages and cultures. But the researchers stressed that using this tool has disadvantages. One of the most obvious is the bias in favor of the wealthier populations of the northern hemisphere who use Wikipedia more widely. Wikipedia does not appear in many languages spoke in other parts of the world.

The interest people express in animals can help raise public support for protecting them, although there is concern that less popular species may not get the required attention. But the researchers hope that the interest in large reptiles can be harnessed to protect them and through this protection, preserve large ecosystems inhabited by many other species. The scientists plan to expand the monitoring of Wikipedia views to other groups of animals.