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Concept: Komodo dragon


Varanidae is a clade of tiny (<20 mm pre-caudal length [PCL]) to giant (>600 mm PCL) lizards first appearing in the Cretaceous. True monitor lizards (Varanus) are known from diagnostic remains beginning in the early Miocene (Varanus rusingensis), although extremely fragmentary remains have been suggested as indicating earlier Varanus. The paleobiogeographic history of Varanus and timing for origin of its gigantism remain uncertain.

Concepts: Reptile, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Snake, Monitor lizard, Anguimorpha, Mosasaur, Heloderma


Somatic growth patterns represent a major component of organismal fitness and may vary among sexes and populations due to genetic and environmental processes leading to profound differences in life-history and demography. This study considered the ontogenic, sex-specific and spatial dynamics of somatic growth patterns in ten populations of the world’s largest lizard the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). The growth of 400 individual Komodo dragons was measured in a capture-mark-recapture study at ten sites on four islands in eastern Indonesia, from 2002 to 2010. Generalized Additive Mixed Models (GAMMs) and information-theoretic methods were used to examine how growth rates varied with size, age and sex, and across and within islands in relation to site-specific prey availability, lizard population density and inbreeding coefficients. Growth trajectories differed significantly with size and between sexes, indicating different energy allocation tactics and overall costs associated with reproduction. This leads to disparities in maximum body sizes and longevity. Spatial variation in growth was strongly supported by a curvilinear density-dependent growth model with highest growth rates occurring at intermediate population densities. Sex-specific trade-offs in growth underpin key differences in Komodo dragon life-history including evidence for high costs of reproduction in females. Further, inverse density-dependent growth may have profound effects on individual and population level processes that influence the demography of this species.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population density, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Lizard, Dragon, Monitor lizard


In Australia, large native predators are fatally poisoned when they ingest invasive cane toads (Rhinella marina). As a result, the spread of cane toads has caused catastrophic population declines in these predators. Immediately prior to the arrival of toads at a floodplain in the Kimberley region, we induced conditioned taste aversion in free-ranging varanid lizards (Varanus panoptes), by offering them small cane toads. By the end of the 18-month study, only one of 31 untrained lizards had survived longer than 110 days, compared to more than half (nine of 16) of trained lizards; the maximum known survival of a trained lizard in the presence of toads was 482 days. In situ aversion training (releasing small toads in advance of the main invasion front) offers a logistically simple and feasible way to buffer the impact of invasive toads on apex predators.

Concepts: Predation, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Dog, Apex predator, Monitor lizard, Monitor lizards, Argus monitor


While snake venoms have been the subject of intense study, comparatively little work has been done on lizard venoms. In this study, we have examined the structural and functional diversification of anguimorph lizard venoms and associated toxins, and related these results to dentition and predatory ecology. Venom composition was shown to be highly variable across the 20 species of Heloderma, Lanthanotus, and Varanus included in our study. While kallikrein enzymes were ubiquitous, they were also a particularly multifunctional toxin type, with differential activities on enzyme substrates and also ability to degrade alpha or beta chains of fibrinogen that reflects structural variability. Examination of other toxin types also revealed similar variability in their presence and activity levels. The high level of venom chemistry variation in varanid lizards compared to that of helodermatid lizards suggests that venom may be subject to different selection pressures in these two families. These results not only contribute to our understanding of venom evolution but also reveal anguimorph lizard venoms to be rich sources of novel bioactive molecules with potential as drug design and development lead compounds.

Concepts: Squamata, Komodo dragon, Venom, Snake, Monitor lizard, Anguimorpha, Heloderma, Scleroglossa


Anthropogenic fire is a form of ecosystem engineering that creates greater landscape patchiness at small spatial scales: such rescaling of patch diversity through mosaic burning has been argued to be a form of niche construction, the loss of which may have precipitated the decline and extinction of many endemic species in the Western Desert of Australia. We find evidence to support this hypothesis relative to one keystone species, the sand monitor lizard (Varanus gouldii). Paradoxically, V. gouldii populations are higher where Aboriginal hunting is most intense. This effect is driven by an increase in V. gouldii densities near successional edges, which is higher in landscapes that experience extensive human burning. Over time, the positive effects of patch mosaic burning while hunting overwhelm the negative effects of predation in recently burned areas to produce overall positive impacts on lizard populations. These results offer critical insights into the maintenance of animal communities in the desert, supporting the hypothesis that the current high rate of endemic species decline among small animals may be linked to the interaction between invasive species and mid-century removal of Aboriginal niche construction through hunting and patch mosaic burning.

Concepts: Ecology, Reptile, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Monitor lizard, Argus monitor


Lizards are remarkable amongst amniotes, for they display a unique mosaic of reproduction modes ranging from egg-laying to live-bearing. Within this patchwork, geckoes are believed to represent the only group to ever have produced fully calcified rigid-shelled eggs, contrasting with the ubiquitous parchment shelled-eggs observed in other lineages. However, this hypothesis relies only on observations of modern taxa and fossilised gecko-like eggshells which have never been found in association with any embryonic or parental remains. We report here the first attested fossil eggs of lizards from the Early Cretaceous of Thailand, combining hard eggshells with exquisitely preserved embryos of anguimoph (e.g. Komodo dragons, mosasaurs). These fossils shed light on an apparently rare reproduction strategy of squamates, demonstrate that the evolution of rigid-shelled eggs are not an exclusive specialization of geckoes, and suggest a high plasticity in the reproductive organs mineralizing eggshells.

Concepts: Reproductive system, Reptile, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Cretaceous, Fossil, Lizard, Dinosaur


In the past, toxinological research on reptiles has focused principally on clinically important species. As a result, our understanding of the evolution of the reptile venom system is limited. Here, for the first time, we describe the structural and molecular evolutionary features of the mandibular toxin-secreting gland of Abronia graminea, a representative of one of the poorly known and entirely arboreal lineages of anguimorph lizards. We show that the mandibular gland is robust and serous, characters consistent with those expected of a toxin-secreting gland in active use. A wide array of transcripts were recovered that were homologous to those encoded by the indisputably venomous helodermatid lizards. We show that some of these toxin transcripts are evolving under active selection and show evidence of rapid diversification. Helokinestatin peptides in particular are revealed to have accumulated residues that have undergone episodic diversifying selections. Conversely, the natriuretic peptides have evolved under tremendous evolutionary constraints despite being encoded in tandem with helokinestatins by the same gene precursor. Of particular note is the sequencing for the first time of kunitz peptides from a lizard toxin-secreting gland. Not only are kunitz peptides shown to be an ancestral toxicoferan toxin, the ancestral state of this peptide is revealed to be a dual domain encoding precursor. This research provides insight into the evolutionary history of the ancient toxicoferan reptile venom system. In addition, it shows that even ‘clinically irrelevant’ species can be a rich source of novel venom components, worthy of investigation for drug design and biomedical research.

Concepts: DNA, Natural selection, Evolution, Biology, Evolutionary biology, Gecko, Squamata, Komodo dragon


Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards and are the apex predators in their environs. They endure numerous strains of pathogenic bacteria in their saliva and recover from wounds inflicted by other dragons, reflecting the inherent robustness of their innate immune defense. We have employed a custom bioprospecting approach combining partial de novo peptide sequencing with transcriptome assembly to identify cationic antimicrobial peptides from Komodo dragon plasma. Through these analyses, we identified 48 novel potential cationic antimicrobial peptides. All but one of the identified peptides were derived from histone proteins. The antimicrobial effectiveness of eight of these peptides was evaluated against Pseudomonas aeruginosa (ATCC 9027) and Staphylococcus aureus (ATCC 25923), with seven peptides exhibiting antimicrobial activity against both microbes, and one only showing significant potency against P. aeruginosa. This study demonstrates the power and promise of our bioprospecting approach to cationic antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) discovery and it reveals the presence of a plethora of novel histone-derived antimicrobial peptides in the plasma of the Komodo dragon. These findings may have broader implications regarding the role that intact histones and histone-derived peptides play in defending the host from infection. Data are available via ProteomeXChange with identifier PXD005043.

Concepts: Immune system, Bacteria, Mass spectrometry, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Komodo dragon, Antimicrobial peptides, Dragon, Monitor lizard


The Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator) is the most common monitor lizard in Thailand. Reported data regarding hematology and morphology of blood cells for this species are scarce.

Concepts: Squamata, Komodo dragon, Monitor lizard, Monitor lizards, Argus monitor, Water monitor, Varanus cumingi


In reptiles, the mode of reproduction is typically sexual. However, facultative parthenogenesis occurs in some Squamata, such as Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) and Burmese python (Python bivittatus). Here, we report facultative parthenogenesis in the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). We found two fully developed female neonates and 17 undeveloped eggs in the oviduct of a female anaconda isolated from other individuals for eight years and two months at Ueno Zoo, Japan. To clarify the zygosity of the neonates, we analyzed 18 microsatellite markers of which 16 were informative. We observed only maternal alleles and no paternal alleles for all 16 markers. To examine the possibility of the long-term sperm storage, we estimated allele frequencies in a putative parental stock by genotyping five unrelated founders. If all founders, including the mother, are originated from a single Mendelian population, then the probability that the neonates were produced by sexual reproduction with an unrelated male via long-term sperm storage was infinitesimally small (2.31E-32 per clutch). We also examined samples from two additional offspring that the mother delivered eight years before her death. We consistently observed paternal alleles in these elder offspring, indicating that the mother had switched from sexual reproduction to asexual reproduction during the eight years of isolation. This is the first case of parthenogenesis in Eunectes to be validated by DNA analysis, and suggests that facultative parthenogenesis is widespread in the Boidae.

Concepts: Genetics, Reproduction, Reptile, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Asexual reproduction, Parthenogenesis, Eunectes murinus