Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) have always been oddballs in the reptile world. Their unusual cardiovascular system and their uniquely powerful sense of smell help them hunt—and find mates—more easily than other lizard species. Now, scientists know why, thanks to the first-ever sequencing of the Komodo dragon’s genome.
To understand why Komodo dragons are so unique, scientists spent 8 years gathering data and sequencing the genomes of four lizards from four zoos (including Slasher, above, from Zoo Atlanta). They then mapped the evolutionary history of Komodos by comparing their genomes with three birds, four mammals, and 15 reptiles in the Varanidae family, including the Chinese crocodile lizard and the Carolina anole.
Nearly 201 genes stood out, including those that coded for some of the Komodo dragon’s most unusual traits, like their ability to use pheromones to target and ambush prey. Several genes seem to enhance their metabolism, allowing them to process carbohydrates faster for more energy during extended periods of hunting and fighting. The researchers also found genes coding for proteins used in haemostasis, a blood-clotting process that allows the lizards to survive bites from other Komodo dragons, whose saliva contains blood-thinning chemicals, researchers report today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Scientists hope their new map of the Komodo dragon genome will not only help them better understand lizards like Slasher, but will also provide a template for researching—and conserving—other lizards in the same family.