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.
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.
Varanids represent one of the most charismatic squamate clades and include the largest living lizards; however, little is known about their embryonic development and what it might reveal about the origin of their derived anatomy. In the present study, we describe external organogenesis and skull formation of Varanus panoptes in great detail. We compared timing of ossification with the patterns seen in other squamates, using three major hypotheses of squamate interrelationship as phylogenetic templates, and were able to detect heterochronic patterns in ossification that are associated with adult anatomy in each phylogeny. However, we refrain from preferring one topology given the current lack of congruence between molecular and morphological data sets. The rule of thumb that early appearance of developmental characters is correlated to larger prominence in adults is critically discussed and we conclude that such simple correlations are the exception rather than the rule. The entanglement of developmental processes detected herein highlights the non-independent formation of adult characters that are usually treated as independent in phylogenetic studies, which may bias the output of such studies. Our comprehensive descriptions of embryonic development may serve as a resource for future studies integrating the complex processes of embryogenesis into broad-scale phylogenetic analyses that are likely to show that change in embryonic timing is one of the major sources of morphological diversification.
A wide variety of sex determination systems exist among squamate reptiles. They can therefore serve as an important model for studies of evolutionary transitions among particular sex determination systems. However, we still have only a limited knowledge of sex determination in certain important lineages of squamates. In this respect, one of the most understudied groups is the family Helodermatidae (Anguimorpha) encompassing the only two venomous species of lizards which are potentially lethal to human beings. We uncovered homomorphic ZZ/ZW sex chromosomes in the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) with a highly heterochromatic W chromosome. The sex chromosomes are morphologically similar to the ZZ/ZW sex chromosomes of monitor lizards (Varanidae). If the sex chromosomes of helodermatids and varanids are homologous, female heterogamety may be ancestral for the whole Anguimorpha group. Moreover, we found that the karyotype of the Gila monster consists of 2n = 36 chromosomes (14 larger metacentric chromosomes and 22 acrocentric microchromosomes). 2n = 36 is the widely distributed chromosomal number among squamates. In his pioneering works representing the only previous cytogenetic examination of the family Helodermatidae, Matthey reported the karyotype as 2n = 38 and suggested a different chromosomal morphology for this species. We believe that this was probably erroneously. We also discovered a strong accumulation of telomeric sequences on several pairs of microchromosomes in the Gila monster, which is a trait documented relatively rarely in vertebrates. These new data fill an important gap in our understanding of the sex determination and karyotype evolution of squamates.