Thursday, 19 September 2019

Elaborate Komodo dragon armor defends against other dragons


Date:  September 12, 2019
Source:  University of Texas at Austin

Just beneath their scales, Komodo dragons wear a suit of armor made of tiny bones. These bones cover the dragons from head to tail, creating a "chain mail" that protects the giant predators. However, the armor raises a question: What does the world's largest lizard -- the dominant predator in its natural habitat -- need protection from?

After scanning Komodo dragon specimens with high-powered X-rays, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin think they have an answer: other Komodo dragons.

Jessica Maisano, a scientist in the UT Jackson School of Geosciences, led the research, which was published Sept.10 in the journal The Anatomical Record. Her co-authors are Christopher Bell, a professor in the Jackson School; Travis Laduc, an assistant professor in the UT College of Natural Sciences; and Diane Barber, the curator of cold-blooded animals at the Fort Worth Zoo.

The scientists came to their conclusion by using computed tomography (CT) technology to look inside and digitally reconstruct the skeletons of two deceased dragon specimens -- one adult and one baby. The adult was well-equipped with armor, but it was completely absent in the baby. It's a finding that suggests that the bony plates don't appear until adulthood. And the only thing adult dragons need protection from is other 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," Bell said. "That would be a time when extra armor would help."

Many groups of lizards have bones embedded in their skin called osteoderms. Scientists have known about osteoderms in Komodo dragons since at least the 1920s, when naturalist William D. Burden noted their presence as an impediment to the mass production of dragon leather. But since the skin is the first organ removed when making a skeleton, scientists do not have much information about how they are shaped or arranged inside the skin.

The researchers were able to overcome this issue by examining the dragons at UT's High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography Facility, which is managed by Maisano. The lab's CT scanners are similar to a clinical CT scanner but use higher-energy X-rays and finer detectors to reveal the interiors of specimens in great detail.

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