Thursday, April 24, 2014

Monitor Lizards: The Living Dragons

Note from Christian Ryan: I have a big announcement to make: this blog has officially reached 10,539 pageviews!!! I can't believe it! Thanks to everyone who reads my blog!

Can you believe it's already the end of April? I can't! The time has flown so fast. For those of you that are interested, “The King on a Cross” drama went quite well. We had well over 100 people in attendance on Friday night, and around a quarter less on Saturday. It was a great turn out. By the way, my next stop-motion series episode (Animal Face-Off: Brown Bear vs. Siberian Tiger) is in the works. I should have that finished very soon, perhaps by either next Thursday, or the Thursday following it. Without further ado, let's dive into our “usuals”.

Days Till
It is: 16 days till Mother's Day
It is: 52 days till Father's Day
It is: 71 days till Independence Day

In the Spotlight
With filming underway for the long-waited-for third sequel to Jurassic Park, Jurassic World is still keeping the lid on a lot of information regarding plot, details on specific characters, which dinosaurs will be in the film and etc. However, some more information regarding the film has been released this week.

Not too long ago, you'll recall that one of the extras in JW took some pictures of one of the JW sets (presumably of the theme park itself) and posted them onto the internet. This week, more photographs from the set have emerged. Here they are below:

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these photographs; if you own them and would like them taken off, politely make the request and it will be done.

Exactly what the structure is or what it will be used for is uncertain at this point. This has got many fans wondering what it is. If you look closely at the pictures, it appears that the structure has what might be electric fencing at the top. Also, the surroundings of the structure indicate that this area of the park isn't for tourists and is for staff only. This suggests one of two things: either this is what's left of the raptor pen from the first film, or it's where a species of dinosaur – maybe Velociraptor or a scary new dinosaur – is kept. Who knows?

And is if those pictures didn't get you excited enough, we have more photographs from the JW set via Entertainment Weekly:

One photograph shows Bryce Dallas Howard's character (who is believed to be named Beth) in what looks like a control room of some kind. The second is of a construction vehicle which appears to have suffered some dino-damage (dino-damage insurance anyone?). The third is a photo of the director's chair overlooking the picaresque Hawaiian flora.

And if you still aren't excited enough, Empire Magazine had the chance to interview JW's director, Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow didn't only reveal some details about the film he's directing now, but also that the chances are that Jurassic World won't be the last of the Jurassic Park films. Trevorrow is quoted for saying:
"We wanted to create something that would be a little bit less arbitrary and episodic, and something that could potentially arc into a series that would feel like a complete story"
He also went on to explain a little bit about a relationship between Chris Pratt's and Omar Sy's characters in the film:
"They work together and have some pretty cool action scenes together. I wanted to create a relationship there that could be memorable and potentially carry on to future films."
Last but not least, he revealed something that gets a Jurassic Park fan like me extremely excited: plot details (AWESOME!!!). I've been hoping for more plot details for quite a while, and I finally got my wish. Here is what Trevorrow had to say concerning the film's plot:
"so now we’ve brought back another that happened to be the alpha species during its time, and we have to co-exist, so what is that relationship."
Perhaps the alpha species he's referring to is that scary new species of dinosaur that's been talked about since last year. If that's the case, then we're are getting closer to figuring out the identification of this mysterious creature! Since it might be the “alpha species” Trevorrow talked about, the scary new dinosaur is probably relatively intelligent, like raptors. And it's probably relatively small like raptors too. To me, this makes it seem clear that the new scary dinosaur is a Troodon, or a similar theropod dinosaur. Troodon definitely fits the bill, as it was the most intelligent dinosaur and in the Jurassic Park franchise, has spooky-looking glowing eyes and a nightmarish venom . . . definitely a dinosaur who's appearance will make you want to leave the lights on at night!

Of course, this is all speculation. We'll have to wait until the movie is released to find out!

Last but not least, in an interview with Empire Magazine, Trevorrow confirms the usage of live-action dinosaurs along with CGI dinosaurs, just like the first three films.

Topic of the Week by Christian Ryan
Most species of lizards God created are harmless and rather small, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking about a special group of lizards called monitor lizards! They arguably some of the coolest reptiles God made; at first glance, they look a lot like dinosaurs; but unlike the dinosaurs, monitor lizards are still alive today. The Komodo dragon is probably one of – if not the most – popular species of monitor lizard, but the many species come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Let's learn more about the monitor lizard – the living dragons!

Monitor lizards come in all shapes and sizes.
Being terrestrial, God created monitor lizards on the Sixth Day of the Creation week, 6,000 years ago. There are 73 species of monitor lizards currently described, and while many of them have slightly different appearances, diets and sizes, these lizards share many common features. All monitor lizards – like other lizards – walk on all fours and possess somewhat elongated skulls filled with loads of needle-sharp teeth, long powerful tails and strong claws on their limbs. Various species of monitor lizards are native to many parts of Africa, southeastern Asia and Australia. However, they have been introduced to Florida – especially in the Everglades. As mentioned before, monitor lizards come in different sizes; some of the smallest species of monitor lizards grow only 7.9 inches in length. What about the biggest? Well, that title belongs to none other than the Komodo dragon, of course! Komodo dragons can grow on average between 7.5-8.5 feet from nose to tail! But that's nothing compared to the largest monitor lizard (and the largest terrestrial lizard) ever to exist on the planet: Megalania! Megalania – which looked like a giant version of the Komodo dragon – lived in Australia during the Ice Age and grew 23-26 feet in length!

The size of various monitor lizards compared to a human.
One of the first things you'll notice about monitor lizards is their skin – their unique scales are reinforced with tiny bones known as osteoderms. These osteoderms are kind of like natural chain-mail and keep the lizards safe from many dangers.

The scales of a monitor lizard act like chain mail and protect the lizard from harm.
Now let's look at some of the other features of the monitor lizards. Monitor lizards like the Komodo dragon can see up to a distance of 980 feet, but their eyesight isn't all that great. Nor is their hearing. However, God had these lizards excel in two of their other senses: smell and taste. Like snakes, monitor lizards smell using their forked tongues instead of their nostrils. They do this by first, flicking their tongues out of their mouths to taste and collect scent molecules. With the scent molecules on its tongue, the lizard retracts it back into the mouth where it is able to decipher the scents its tongue collected using the Jacobson's organ. Pretty cool, huh? Did you know that a Komodo dragon can smell carrion from over 2.5-5.9 miles away depending on how the wind is blowing?

Monitor lizards smell with their tongues like snakes do.
They may not look it, but did you know monitor lizards are very intelligent reptiles? Studies have proven that not only are some species able to count, but they also can figure out clever ways to get food. In the wild, a monitor lizard was once observed luring a mother crocodile away from her nest, allowing his fellow lizard to sneak to the nest and eat the crocodile's eggs! Then the first monitor lizard got his turn to steal eggs. Monitor lizards have also been known to gang up on prey. And Komodo dragons at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. are able to recognize their keepers and even have their own unique personalities. Monitor lizards aren't nearly as dopey as they might look!

Komodo dragons and other monitor lizards are very smart animals.
The habitat in which a monitor lizard lives and the lizard's size influences what prey it eats. Most monitor lizards, like the Lace and Nile monitor lizards, are carnivorous and aren't very picky eaters – they will consume birds, eggs, fish, small mammals and even smaller reptiles. Others prefer larger meals. Komodo dragons would starve if they had to live off of what their smaller relations eat! No, dragons prefer to eat a wide variety of food including carrion, other reptiles (including smaller dragons!), birds, eggs, monkeys, small mammals, wild pigs, deer, goats, horses and water buffalo! Despite their large size, Komodo dragons are surprisingly fast and can reach speeds of 12 mph in short bursts and will even dive up to 15 feet underwater in pursuit of a meal. Monitor lizards can maintain higher rates of activity than most other reptiles because they have a relatively high metabolic rate for reptiles.

Monitor lizards are expert swimmers, climbers and runners.
You might be wondering how on earth a creature like a Komodo dragon is able to bring down water buffalo. Sure, its got strength and sharp teeth . . . but it is a lizard, and it's relatively low to the ground compared to the buffalo. Well, you might have heard that Komodo dragons can kill their prey thanks to special deadly bacteria in their mouth. The bacteria was believed to thrive in their jaws because little bits of meat from previous meals would get stuck in between the teeth and rot. Once bitten, the buffalo or other prey animal later dies of infection. But guess what? Recent studies have revealed that the bacteria of Komodo dragons actually isn't actually that deadly. In fact, it's no more deadly than the bacteria found on one of their prey animals, or in the mouth of a lion, or even in the mouth of a kindergartener! So what's the secret?

The mouth of a Komodo dragon isn't actually filled with deadly bacteria-filled saliva.
It wasn't until very recently that scientists took a close look at the flaps of skin hanging from where the lower jaw bones are, and this is the same location where you'll find a venom gland in many venomous snakes. See the connection? Perhaps Komodo dragons were actually venomous? Scientists examined the head of a Komodo dragon and found their hypothesis to be correct: venom glands were indeed present in that spot. So how does a Komodo dragon kill its prey? What it does, is it sits and waits patiently for a prey animal to get close before it strikes! It bites the prey and allows it to escape. However, the venom causes the bitten animal to suffer from blood clotting, lowering blood pressure, muscle paralysis and other nasty effects that cause shock and loss of consciousness. Then the dragons move in for the feast. Afterward, researchers also found out that other monitor lizards, such as the Lace monitor, also have a venomous bite. Yikes!

Komodo dragons kill large animals like buffalo with a venomous bite.
Now let's look at several species of monitor lizards:

Lace Monitor (Varanus varius)
As one might suggest based on this photograph, Lace monitors often climb trees in the wild.
This species of monitor lizard is the second largest in the world, measuring almost seven feet in length, most of which being due to their long tails. The largest individuals weigh around 44 pounds. Lace monitors make their home in eastern Australia and unlike the largest lizard in the world, these guys are largely arboreal. Their diet consists of bird eggs, other reptiles, insects, small mammals and birds. Like other monitors, they love eating carrion. Up until recently, Lace monitors were thought to possess deadly bacteria in their mouths like the Komodo dragon was thought to have. Today we know that they're mildly venomous.

Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)
Komodo dragons are the largest lizards living today.
As its name suggests, the Komodo dragon lives on the island of Komodo in the Indian Ocean. With the largest of the species growing up to 10 feet long and weighing on average about 150 pounds, these lizards are far larger than most other monitor lizards. Often times once an animal species reaches an island, it will either grow larger or smaller over time through a process of natural selection (which is different from evolution). When a creature that reaches an island grows larger, the process is called Insular gigantism. No one is quite sure why this occurred in Komodo dragons, but some scientists theorize that they grew big is because they hunted the island's now-extinct population of dwarf elephants known as Stegodons. As you read a few paragraphs before, Komodo dragons are now known to be venomous, and they use their venom to bring down large prey that can be found on Komodo Island such as wild boar, deer and water buffalo. After the initial attack, the dragon follows the victim via its acute sense of smell and once the animal dies from the venom or is too weak to put up a fight, the biter and other nearby Komodo dragons join in the feast. These lizards have also been observed using their tails to knock down large mammals. Sometimes, dragons will also eat humans, but these attacks are rare (fortunately). When it comes time for a mother dragons to lay their eggs, they either dig large burrows to lay them in, or they lay them in abandoned nesting mounds of the local Orange-footed scrubfowl. Around 20 eggs are laid and they incubate for approximately 7-8 months. Once they hatch, they emerge from the nest into an unforgiving world. Mother dragons don't show any parental care for their young and adults are known to be cannibalistic – juvenile dragons make up 10% of the adults' diet! So the young dragons are mostly arboreal, meaning they live mostly in trees, since adults can't climb and there's plenty of food for the young lizards in trees. Komodo dragon babies also have another way to avoid being eaten by older individuals: they roll around in dung. Yes, it's disgusting, but adult dragons can't stand eating faeces. It's a tough life for a young dragon!

Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus)
Nile monitors are known for stealing eggs from crocodile nests.
A relatively large species of monitor lizard growing up to five feet from snout to tail. Some specimens have been known to reach sizes of around eight feet though. As their name suggests, they live around the Nile River, but they can also be found just about everywhere else on the continent of Africa as well. Though not native there, populations of these lizards are found in Florida and they are suspected to be responsible for many missing pets from that area. Nile monitors make their home around rivers and feed mainly on crocodile eggs and young, fish, frogs, carrion, small mammals, snakes, birds, large insets and snails. Thanks to a relatively high metabolism for a reptile, Nile monitors an run rather fast on land and are excellent climbers and swimmers.

Gray's Monitor (Varanus olivaceus)
The Gray's monitor, also known as the Butaan, is one of the few largely fruit-eating monitor lizards.
Like all other species of monitor lizards, Gray's monitor – also called the Butaan – possesses an acute sense of smell, a forked tongue, sharp teeth, strong claws and limbs and tough scales. But this lizard's diet might surprise you: while it occasionally supplements its diet with crabs, birds, eggs, snails, spiders and beetles, the Butaan mainly eats ripe fruit! That's right! The 180-centimeter long relation of the ferociously carnivorous Komodo dragon eats mainly fruit – especially the ripe fruit of the Pandanus. This might explain why it's largely arboreal. Unlike many monitor lizards, Butaan are rather shy creatures and will hide from humans if possible. They are unique to the lowlands of some islands in the Philippines. Why do these lizards have such a bizarre diet? Scientists believe that it might be so that it doesn't compete with water monitors, which live in the same places.

Megalania (Varanus priscus)
Megalania was the largest terrestrial lizard and possibly the largest venomous creature ever to exist on the planet.
The largest species of monitor – as well as the largest species of terrestrial lizard – is the Megalania. It isn't the largest species of lizard of all though; that title belongs to an unrelated extinct family of marine lizards known as the mosasaurs, some of which grew over 50 feet in length! Megalania made its home in southern Australia during the Ice Age that occurred soon after the Genesis Flood had ended; back then, around 4,250 to perhaps 3,650 years ago, Australia was a much wetter place than it is today. Forests stretched over much of the now-dry continent and made a perfect hunting ground for the giant lizard. Very few Megalania fossils have been found, so it's a good thing their relations still live on today. Scientists look at Megalania's relatives, Komodo dragons, Lace monitors and other monitor lizards to help piece together what Megalania would have looked like and behaved. Megalania grew about 23-26 feet long and weighing 710 to a maximum of around 4,280 pounds. That's a big lizard! What on earth would feed such an awesome lizard? How about a rhino-sized wombat or a ten-foot tall kangaroo? Extinct relatives of many of today's marsupials were giants when Megalania was alive. Procoptodon was a giant ten-foot kangaroo, and Diprotodon was a giant wombat, the size of a rhino or a car! It is also likely that Megalania had a venomous bite like its monitor lizard cousins. We can't be completely sure, as venom glands don't fossilize, but if it was indeed venomous, it would have been the largest venomous animal ever known to exist on the planet! How did the Megalania go extinct? Well, we don't know for sure, but it's likely that the great lizard's food supply was greatly effected by the loss of its main food supply. Its main food supply probably died off due to the drying of the Australian continent as the Ice Age progressed. With no food, Megalania would have starved out of existence.

I'm very glad that God created monitor lizards, and who wouldn't be? They're cool looking and have really amazing features that help them survive. But there's still much to learn about these incredible lizards!

Venomous, carnivorous, predatory and dangerous, monitor lizards deserve respect.
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