Arxiu d'etiquetes: komodo dragon

Monsters and dragons: Venomous lizards

When we think about venomous animals most people think about the same ones. Usually, we think about spiders, scorpions and snakes, despite knowing there are also venomous amphibians, fishes and mammals. Even if snakes are the best known venomous reptiles, in time we have learned that they are not the only group that present venomous glands and that many other reptiles also have the capacity of injecting venom. In this entry we’ll get to know the least known venomous saurians and we’ll try to explain their relationship with snakes.

EVOLUTION OF VENOM IN REPTILES

Everybody is familiar with the toxic abilities of snakes. Traditionally it was believed that venom evolved independently in the different groups of venomous snakes (colubrids, elapids and viperids) and in a lizard family (the helodermatids). Yet this vision has changed over the years and with the discovery of other species of venomous squamates.

Venom_extractionThe venom of many animals is used for both antivenom development and pharmacological research of analgesics and other medicines. Photo of the extraction of venom from a saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), by Kalyan Varma (Image under a GNU license).

Currently, it’s been shown that there are different species of saurian which present glands and organs capable of injecting venom, along with many other species with genetic material related to venom production (even if most aren’t venomous). This occurs, for example, in many apparently non-venomous snakes and lizards that retain genetic material related to the synthesis of venom. This has caused many scientists to group these reptiles under a common clade called Toxicofera, “those who bear toxins”.

This new clade includes the different squamosal taxa, which are believed to have had a venomous common ancestor. These groups are:

  • Ophidia: Ophidians, snakes.
Indian_wolf_snake_(Lycodon_aulicus)_Photograph_By_Shantanu_KuveskarIndian wolf snake (Lycodon aulicus), example of an ophidian. Photo by Shantanu Kuveskar.
  • Iguania: Iguanas, agamas and chameleons.
6968443212_4b3f4fbd7f_oBrown basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus), example of an iguanian. Photo by Steve Harbula.
Real_Lanthanotus_borneensisEarless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis), example of an anguimorph. Photo by Kulbelbolka.

Even though most current iguanians and anguimorphs don’t present venom, the Toxicofera theory proposes that many species would have lost their capacity to inject venom secondarily. Below we’ll present some of the lesser known venomous saurians.

MONSTERS OF THE NEW WORLD

The most famous venomous lizards are the anguimorphs of the Helodermatidae family. From their discovery it was known that these lizards where venomous, as they present a pair of venomous glands in their lower jaws and various pairs of grooved teeth similar to those of venomous snakes with which they inject venom.

heloderma teethHelodermatid skull, in which we can see the sharp teeth with which they inject their venom. Image from Heloderma.net.

The helodermatis are carnivorous animals which feed on small mammals, birds, wall lizards, amphibians, invertebrates, eggs and carrion. Considering its generalist diet and that their prey are pretty defenceless, it is thought that venom evolved in these reptiles as a predator deterrent method, not as a hunting strategy.

2415413851_3d441fea6d_oPhoto by Walknboston of a Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum), in which we can see its black and yellow coloration, with which it warns its predators about its toxicity (aposematic coloration).

The Gila monster and the beaded lizard (Heloderma horridum) are slow animals which aren’t really dangerous to human beings. Yet their raising popularity as exotic pets has ended with some bite cases. The bite of a Gila monster causes some serious and burning pain, local edema, weakness, dizziness and nausea. Even if heavy bleeding is usually associated with bites, this isn’t due to some sort of anticoagulant substance but to the helodermatid’s sharp teeth and to the fact that to inject the venom they must chew their aggressor strongly , causing deep lacerations.

THE BEARDED DRAGON

The saurians of the genus Pogona are iguanians of the Agamidae family. These Australian reptiles are known as bearded dragons for the spines that they present on their throats. Even though they are adapted to live in arid places, the environmental temperature can affect the sex of their offspring.

Eastern_Bearded_Dragon_(Pogona_barbata)_(8243678492)Photo of an eastern bearded dragon in which we can see its yellow coloured mouth. Could it be that this coloration is indicating anything? Photo by Matt.

Bearded dragons are inoffensive animals, but there’s one species with a secret weapon. The eastern bearded dragon (Pogona barbata) is a venomous lizard but, while the rest of venomous reptiles only have one pair of venomous glands, the eastern bearded dragon has two pairs: two in its upper jaw and two in its lower jaw.

nature04328-f2.2Transversal section of the mouth of an eastern bearded dragon, in which we can see the incipient venomous glands both in its upper jaw (mxivg) and its lower jaw (mnivg). Image extracted from Fry, Vidal et al.

The venom they produce isn’t really strong (in human beings it only causes a minor swelling) and the glands are considered vestigial. Yet, the Toxicofera theory argues that the glands of the bearded dragon show us the primitive form which the first toxicoferan reptile would have presented, with two pairs of venom glands instead of a single pair like most current venomous reptiles.

THE BIG MONITORS

Everyone has heard about monitor lizards (anguimorphs of the Varanidae family). There are hundreds of documentaries about the Komodo dragon in which we are told that these animals have so many bacteria in their mouths that their bites inflict an infection, deadly enough to kill an adult bull. Yet recent studies have shown that the monitor’s poor buccal hygiene is not what causes the death of their victims.

Sans nom-35Perente or perentie (Varanus giganteus) a typical varanid, with long neck, strong legs, active metabolism and developed senses. Photo by Bernard Dupont.

Even if there are three frugivorous species, the rest are obligate carnivores. It has always been said that the mouth’s bacteria of the monitors is what causes the death of their prey, even if there isn’t any studies which prove it. In fact, in many studies it has been seen that the monitor’s saliva isn’t very different from that of other herbivorous reptiles.

3215319924_2fe90e244f_oPhoto in which we see the feared monitor’s saliva, specifically from an Asian water  monitor (Varanus salvator). Image by Lip Kee.

In a study, it was demonstrated that various species of monitor lizards present venom glands in their lower jaws. These glands are among the most complex venomous glands known of all reptiles. In the case of the Komodo dragon, these are compound glands with a larger posterior compartment and five smaller anterior compartments. These compartments have ducts that carry the venom between the teeth.

Even if varanids are closely related to snakes (they share, for example, a bifid tongue), these don’t present the snakes’ characteristic grooves in their teeth. This is due to the fact that instead of injecting the venom directly, monitor lizards use their serrated teeth to open a deep wound in their prey, through which the venom will enter the organism.

Varanus_priscus_skullSkull of megalania (Varanus priscus) in which we can see the teeth without gooves. This extinct monitor with more than 5 metres long, was the largest venomous animal known. Photo by Steven G. Johnson.

The utility of the venom for the predatory monitors is also supported by the large quantities of venom that they produce. In constrictor snakes that don’t utilise venom, the genes which codify the synthesis of venom are atrophied because of the great amount of energy required to produce it. Monitors, instead, secrete lots of venom with the slightest stimulation of their glands. This venom contains anticoagulant compounds which prevent the wound to close and also produces a cardiovascular shock in the animal by lowering the blood pressure.

Dragon_feedingA group of Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) feeding on a recently killed pig. Image extracted from Bull, Jessop et al.

Even if we still don’t know for sure if the common ancestor of all these animals was venomous, nor if venom appeared independently in the different families, the relationship between the different members of the clade Toxicofera has been supported by posterior phylogenetic analyses. What we know is that venom is an extremely powerful weapon in the struggle for survival and that, even if snakes are the most numerous venomous reptiles, many other squamate species have been benefiting from the use of toxins, both for self-defence and to subjugate their prey.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been used during the elaboration of this entry:

Difusió-anglès

Anuncis

How do temperature and global warming affect the sex of reptiles?

In most animals the sex of an individual is determined at the moment of fertilization; when the egg and the sperm fuse together it is fixed if that animal will be male or female. Yet in many reptilian groups sex determination is established later during incubation, and the determinant external factor is the incubation temperature of the eggs. In reptiles, this means that the environment plays a crucial role in determining the sex ratio emerging from an egg clutch, and that these animals are very susceptible to alterations in temperature caused, for example, by climate change.

SEXUAL DETERMINATION: GSD VS TSD

In the majority of animal species, sexual differentiation (the development of ovaries or testes) is determined genetically (GSD). In these cases, the sex of an individual is determined by a specific chromosome, gene or allele which will cause the differentiation to one sex or the other. In vertebrates there exists two main types of GSD, the XX/XY system in mammals (in which XX is a female and XY is a male) and the ZW/ZZ system in birds and some fishes (ZW corresponds to a female and ZZ to a male).

Types_of_sex_determinationExamples of different types of genetic sexual determination systems found in vertebrates and invertebrates, by CFCF.

In the case of reptiles, there is a great variety of sexual determination mechanisms. Some present GSD models; many snakes follow the ZW/ZZ system and some lizards the XX/XY. Still, in many groups the sex of the offspring is determined mainly by the egg incubation temperature (TSD), and therefore the environment plays an important role in the proportion of males and females found in a population.

Eastern_Bearded_Dragon_defenceThe eastern bearded dragon (Pogona barbata) is an example of a reptile with GSD, but which is also affected by incubation temperature. Photo by Trent Townsend.

Nevertheless, the genetic and temperature sexual determination are not mutually exclusive. Reptiles with TSD have a genetic base for the ovarian and testicular differentiation which is regulated by temperature. Similarly, it’s been observed that in reptiles with DSG, such as the eastern bearded dragon (Pogona barbata), high temperatures during incubation causes genetically male individuals (ZZ chromosomes) to develop functionally as females. This proves that in reptiles, there is no strict division between GSD and TSD.

TEMPERATURE AND SEX

The incubation period during which the sex of an individual is determined is called thermosensitive period and usually corresponds to the second third of the incubation period, during which temperature must be maintained constant. This critical incubation period usually lasts between 7 and 15 days, depending on the species. After this period the sex of an individual usually cannot be reversed (all or nothing mechanism).

Audobon Zoo, New Orleans, LouisianaKomodo dragon baby (Varanus komodoensis) hatching. Photo by Frank Peters.

Temperature during the critical incubation period affects the functioning of the aromatase, a hormone which converts androgens (masculinizing hormones) to estrogens (feminizing hormones). At male-producing temperatures, the activity of the aromatase is inhibited, while at female-producing temperatures the activity of the aromatase is maintained.

AromatassssssaGraphics of the aromatase’s activity related to gonadal hormones on European pond turtle’s embryos (Emys orbicularis) at 25oC (males) and at 30oC (females), during the critical incubation period, from Pieau et al. 1999.

The TSD is found in all reptile groups except snakes (which have the ZW/ZZ system). In lizards and turtles we can find both genetic-based and temperature-based sexual determination, while in tuataras and crocodilians sex is determined exclusively by temperature. Currently, different patterns of temperature sex determination are known.

PATTERN I

This pattern is the simplest one, in which higher incubation temperatures produce one sex and lower incubation temperatures produce the other sex. Intermediate temperatures usually produce individuals of both sexes and very rarely, intersex individuals. This pattern can be further divided in:

  • Pattern Ia TSD, in which eggs incubated at warmer temperatures produce high female percentages and eggs incubated at cooler temperatures produce high male percentages. This pattern is found in many species of turtles.
Emys_orbicularis_portraitPhoto of a European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis), species that follows the pattern Ia TSD; at 25oC or less during incubation only males are born, while at 30oC or more only females are born. Photo by Francesco Canu.
  • Pattern Ib TSD, in which the contrary occurs; high temperatures produce males and low temperatures produce females. We find this pattern in some lizards with TSD and in the tuataras.
TuataraThe tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) is one of the reptiles that follows the pattern Ib TSD; the pivotal temperature is between 21-22oC, above which males will be born and below which females will be born.

PATTERN II

This pattern is a bit more complex than the previous one. In this one, embryos incubated at extreme temperatures (very high or very low) will differentiate to one sex, while the ones incubated at intermediate temperatures will differentiate to the other sex.

CrocnestPhoto of different aged American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). These reptiles follow the pattern II TSD; at about 34oC males are born, and at higher and lower temperatures, females are born.

This pattern appears in crocodilians, some turtles and in many lizards. Recent phylogenetic studies indicate that this is the ancestral TSD model in reptiles. Some people even argue that all the TSD cases belong to the pattern II, but that in nature temperatures never reach both extremes, although this is yet to be proved.

TEMPERATURE DETERMINED SEX: PROS AND CONS

Even today the evolutionary advantages of the sex determination by temperature are not fully understood. The case of the reptiles is pretty curious because birds, mammals and amphibians determine their sex genetically in most cases, while in reptiles there is a bit of everything.

Currently, there are studies which are being conducted to see if certain temperatures improve the health of males and if other temperatures the health of females. In one of these studies, it was observed that snapping turtles incubated at intermediate temperatures (which produced both males and females) were more active than the ones incubated at temperatures producing only one sex, making them more vulnerable to be attacked by sight-based predators. Currently, there isn’t enough evidence that indicates to what extent these discoveries could be applied. It is possible that reptiles with TSD are able to manipulate the sex of its offspring, altering the proportion of sexual hormones based on the temperature of their nesting site.

Snapping_turtle_eggs_mdCommon snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) an American fresh-water chelonian, laying its eggs. Photo by Moondigger.

The disadvantages of the TSD are much easier to predict.  Any change in the environmental temperature of the nesting areas may affect negatively the populations of a determined species. If a previously shadowy forest is cut down or buildings are constructed in a previously sunny place, the microclimates of the egg clutches of any reptile nesting there will be changed.

Global change, or climate change, represents an additional threat to reptilians with TSD. The rise of the average temperature on the planet and the temperature fluctuation from one year to another, affect the number of males and females that are born in some species of reptiles. This phenomenon has been observed, for example, in painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), in which it has been predicted that a rise of 4oC in their habitat’s temperature could cause the extinction of the species, because only females would be born.

baby-painted-turtle-chrysemys-pictaBaby of a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), species in which incubation temperatures between 23-27oC produce males, and temperatures above and below it produce females (pattern II). Foto de Cava Zachary.

REFERENCES

During the elaboration of this entry the following sources have been used:

Difusió-anglès