Komodo Dragons are badass. They are big, strong, and can sprint at alarmingly high speed – none of which they really need as they are also highly venomous. One bite and they can just sit and wait for their prey to die. Now, researchers have discovered that they also have an extra layer of armor that covers their body. Tiny chain mail-like bones have been observed underneath the scaly skin of these reptiles.
If you are wondering why the world's largest lizard – reaching lengths of up 3 meters (10 feet) and weighing 140 kilograms (300 pounds), that also comes complete with sharp teeth, serrated claws, powerful sight, and smell – could possibly need another item in its arsenal, researchers reporting in the journal The Anatomical Record think they know: to protect themselves from other dragons.
This "chain mail" of tiny bones, known as osteoderms, has been known about since the 1920s but researchers had never looked into how they are shaped and arranged. The team used computed tomography (CT) scans on two deceased specimens, the head of an adult and a baby dragon, which had been only two days old when it died. In the adult, the osteoderms were quite clear, in an incredible number, and appeared in many different shapes, but in the baby they were absent.
Due to the size constraints of the scanner, they only scanned the head of the nearly 2.7-meter-long (9-foot) adult. The University of Texas at Austin
“We were really blown away when we saw it [the scan],” lead author Jessica Maisano, from the University of Texas Austin, said in a statement. “Most monitor lizards just have these vermiform (worm-shaped) osteoderms, but this guy has four very distinct morphologies, which is very unusual across lizards.”
When the researchers scanned the baby dragon, however, they discovered that osteoderms were not present. This led them to conclude that the bony plates don't appear until adulthood as young dragons have no need of it, allowing them to speculate the function of this bone chain mail – after all Komodo dragons have no natural predators. They suggest the osteoderms serve as protection against other Komodo dragons.
“Young komodo dragons spend quite a bit of time in trees, and when they’re large enough to come out of the trees, that’s when they start getting in arguments with members of their own species,” co-author Christopher Bell said. “That would be a time when extra armor would help.”
The adult specimen donated by the Forth Worth Zoo was 19.5 years old. The researchers believe that its advanced age might have played a role in the extreme distributions of the osteoderm armor. In lizards, bones continue to ossify, so they add more layers of material as the animals grow older. The researchers hope to study more specimens at various different ages to better understand when these animals start preparing to battle their fellow dragons.
And, if you're wondering why Komodo dragons haven't just taken over the world yet, there's a surprisingly cute reason.