Debating the Dragon

By Carl Zimmer | May 18, 2009 5:54 pm

komodo.jpgReaders of the Loom may be familiar with the work of Bryan Fry, who studies the evolution of snake venom. (See these two previous posts on his work.) I’ve got an article in tomorrow’s New York Times about his latest paper, to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, Fry and a big team of collaborators argue that Komodo dragons, the biggest lizards on Earth, are venomous. (There wasn’t room in the story to describe their argument that an extinct relative of Komodos that measured 21 feet long, was venomous too.) Provocative stuff, to be sure, and certainly not universally embraced by other researchers. I got some highly spicy quotes from critics. Check it out.

(PS: When the paper is put online this week, you’ll be able find it here: http://www.pnas.org/lookup/doi/10.1073/pnas.0810883106 )

[Image from Wikipedia]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (10)

  1. Either there’s deadly bacteria in Komodo saliva or there isn’t. Hasn’t this ever been directly tested? There are enough zoo specimens around.

  2. It has. Of the many species of bacteria isolated from Komodo mouths, one proved lethal when injected into mice. But it’s not found in all Komodo dragon mouths, and it’s also found in old, sick mammals. These and other reasons to question the bacteria hypotheses are enumerated in the PNAS paper.

  3. Old, sick mammals have deadly bacteria in their mouths? At least I have something to look forward to in my old age. Heaven help any kids I find on my lawn!

  4. Nice article Carl. WARNING: Reading Bryan Fry’s blog may cause dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pains, cold sweats, hot sweats, room temperature sweats, dry mouth, delusions of grandeur, delusions of mediocrity, sudden inexplicable ability to crochet, temporary blindness, night blindness, river blindness, noon blindness, olfactory hallucinations, rapid mood swings, magnetic attractiveness, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, and flavor crystals.

    Schwenk gave you a nice closer there. Any chance that Schwenk and Fry will solve their debate with a snake-duel a la Fantastic Planet? Any chance that anyone get’s that reference. Okay, I’m done.

  5. Chris

    The Cretaceous lizard Estesia, which may be the sister group of the monitors, has deep grooves on its teeth which have been interpreted as venom delivery channels (see http://tinyurl.com/olefka). Also Heloderma, which is fairly closely related to both monitors and Estesia, has venomous saliva. So it’s not such a huge leap to accept that there are monitors that have venom glands.

  6. synergy

    The paper is already up, btw.

    lol@neil

  7. Cameron

    While the quote from Dr. Schwenk certainly is provocative and contentious, it would be nice to hear him expand on why he thinks the new hypothesis is “meaningless, irrelevant, incorrect or falsely misleading.” Making that claim alone is not very enlightening. Carl, any chance you could get Dr. Schwenk to guest post his thoughts on the matter?

  8. I too would love the chance to answer an expanded version of his ‘critique’

  9. The bacteria were a first guess. After all, who wanted to look in a dragon’s mouth? I understand that the venom gland is large and complex.

  10. J Pardo

    As far as I know, Estesia is classified as a “monstersaur” and thus, is more closely related to Heloderma than to Varanus.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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