Baylor College of Medicine Offers Big Help to Komodo Dragon, Smaug

This piece written by Dipail Pathak, Baylor College of Medicine

Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston Zoo previously have collaborated on researching the elephant herpes virus and are now partnering again to help another zoo resident, a 16-year-old Komodo dragon named Smaug.

Baylor faculty in the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program have been working closely with zoo veterinarians and keepers since November to develop an orthosis to help the 7-foot, 200 pound Komodo dragon use his right foot more proficiently.

“About a year ago, we noticed that Smaug wasn’t using his right, front foot normally and that occasionally he was flipping it underneath and walking on the top of his toes,” said Dr. Lauren Howard, associate veterinarian at the Houston Zoo. “So that started the last year-and-a-half of our diagnostic investigation into what was going on with him. We’re still trying to determine why he’s not holding his foot the right way, but in the meantime our goal is to keep him holding his foot upward so he doesn’t continue to walk on the tops of his toes.”
Howard got in touch with Jared Howell, director of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor, to see if he could help. When Howell got the call from the zoo, it was a huge surprise, but he was eager to assist.

Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.
Here you can see Smaug folding his foot under.

“When a Komodo dragon picks up its foot, it slides forward and they fire their muscles and they are able to put their palm downward. What happened for Smaug is that he wasn’t able to fire his muscles to pull the foot forward, so as he picked up his shoulder to pull the foot forward, it stayed in the flex position and then he would land on it and roll his wrist underneath every single time he took a step,” said Howell. “He’s over 200 pounds, so that’s a lot of weight going onto that hand.”
Howell and colleagues visited Smaug at the zoo and took pictures and videos of him walking and came up with a plan to develop a rubberized spring-loaded device that would allow Smaug to have a natural range of motion at the wrist while still being able to then have it spring up when he took weight off of it so the palm would fall flat on the ground the way it should.

Howell and colleagues then took two casts of Smaug’s limb and came back to their labs at Baylor where they worked on a prototype of the orthosis. After a few iterations and some fine-tuning, they designed an orthosis that worked well for Smaug. The orthosis is made of urethane laminate, which is a flexible material that has tackiness to it to adhere to the scales and is easy to put on and take off.

Judith puts on Smaug's brace.
Judith puts on Smaug’s brace.

But that wasn’t the end of their work. A short while after he was fitted for the orthosis, Smaug developed an infection in his foot, unrelated to the orthosis, which caused some mild cellulitis and swelling of the fingers. Howell and colleagues developed a second device to hold his foot in place while he healed. This device, made with silicone polymer, is also easy to get on and off and pre-positions the hand to help Smaug walk well. Smaug now has both devices and uses them as needed.

“We’ve noticed a difference in the management of Smaug’s right front foot. One thing we were having trouble with was his toes were starting to get swollen and infected from the trauma from how he was carrying the foot. With this latest brace, we were able to keep the toes straight and they healed up – they stopped getting traumatized, the swelling went down and they weren’t infected anymore. What we’re looking at is a long-term goal of keeping this brace on for four to six to eight months and hoping that over time, it will strengthen his arm and maybe help him keep it in the right position,” said Howard.

Howell notes that there was a learning curve in working with the reptile.

“It’s a bit different. You don’t have human tissue, you have scales, different muscle functions and joints that all move in different ways. All of those things added to the challenge, but it was a great learning experience and a lot of fun,” said Howell, who emphasized it was a collaborative effort of the entire Orthotics and Prosthetics Program at Baylor.
Smaug Brace



Search Blog & Website
Subscribe to Houston Zoo News
Get the latest stories and updates from the Zoo in your inbox! Find out how: Houston Zoo News
Houston Zoo Facebook Page

We're closed today, January 16. Stay warm and dry, Houston! ... See MoreSee Less

7

 

Comment on Facebook

Keep the animals warm!

Why? What's goin on!?

Stay warm as you take care of our lovely zoo and it’s residents❤️

Misty Flanigan no zoo for Connor

Thank you to all the wonderful staff that went in to take care of their critter babies! Be safe!

Stay warm sweet animals 🦁🐯🐒🦆🐅🐆🦓🦏🐘🦍🦒

Too cold! Good idea.

+ View more comments

We are open on this beautiful Monday! Get out and enjoy the weather before it gets extra chilly this week. ... See MoreSee Less

1

We are open on this beautiful Monday! Get out and enjoy the weather before it gets extra chilly this week.

 

Comment on Facebook

Giraffe feeding was awesome! Only wished we were given even more lettuce!

Had a great time today

We are here. 😀

Don't miss out before we turn off the lights! This is the last weekend for TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights. Bundle up, grab your friends and family and join us for Houston's favorite hoilday tradition.

We even have a special discount to end the season. For just $9 per person, you get to see all two million lights, Candy the Zoo Lights Zebra, and musical reflection pool! zoolights.houstonzoo.org/get-tickets/
... See MoreSee Less

4

Dont miss out before we turn off the lights! This is the last weekend for TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights. Bundle up, grab your friends and family and join us for Houstons favorite hoilday tradition. 

We even have a special discount to end the season. For just $9 per person, you get to see all two million lights, Candy the Zoo Lights Zebra, and musical reflection pool! https://zoolights.houstonzoo.org/get-tickets/

 

Comment on Facebook

My daughter lost her FAVORITE stuffed animal last night. We were there after 8:30. Please contact me if found. She is very very sad

Dianne Ramboer Dunn and Wendy Martinez we're going tonight! Maybe I'll go live for you, grandma! : )

We visited today for daughters 3rd birthday, thank you we had a great day. It was a bit cold so we bundled up and enjoyed the zoo being so quiet, we got to feed giraffes twice! Would recommend!

How is it $9?

Cuanto esta la eñtrada y ban estar las luces mañana para ir com mi familia?

When is the last day to see the lights?

Lupe Mcmillon you should take Emma and Ethan

Aldo Castellanos Isabel Zamarripa-Hernandez Juan Francisco Hernandez $9 el boleto, que dicen?? Este es el último fin de semana

Busca quien nos lleve jajaja Socorro Garcia Ponce 🤣😂

Patricia Lozada tomorrow at 6pm meet us there? :0)

Debbie R Hernandez-Sanchez

Angel Rodriguez

Roxy AR

Valarie Ann Romero

Enrique Gonzalez last chance

Erica Villarreal 9$

Kayla Fitzpatrick

Macie Quick

Callie Wade

Hina Suleman

Griseldaa Chavezz

+ View more comments