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Feeding strategies of Komodo dragons mimic prehistoric predators

With its daunting size and predatory gaze, it is no wonder that the Komodo dragon is often compared to the ferocious theropods of the Mesozoic era, and this comparison extends beyond its physical resemblance. 

A new study from the University of Toronto has revealed fascinating parallels in the tooth development and feeding mechanisms of Komodo dragons and ancient reptiles.

Focus of the study 

Kilat, a 20-year-old Komodo dragon, is the largest living lizard at the Toronto Metro Zoo. After noticing teeth that had been shed within Kilat’s enclosure, the researchers set out to investigate the feeding behavior of Komodo dragons.

The study combined histological analysis and computed tomography (CT) scans to examine the dentition and jaws of both adult and juvenile Komodo dragons.

Unique feeding behavior 

“The Toronto Zoo Team generously collected many shed teeth and allowed us to undertake this study, and skulls in the skeletal collection of the Royal Ontario Museum were also made available to us,” noted the study authors.

“Previous studies have focused on the unique feeding behavior of the Komodo Dragon but have not related this to its unique dental morphology, development, and replacement.”

“We, therefore, examined the dentition and jaws of adults and juveniles with a combination of histological analysis and computed tomography (CT).”

Living model organism 

The experts discovered that adult Komodo teeth were surprisingly similar to those of theropod dinosaurs, with the strongly recurved teeth of adults having serrated cutting edges that were strengthened by dentine cores. 

“We were very excited by this discovery because it makes the Komodo an ideal living model organism for studies of the life history and feeding strategies of the extinct theropod dinosaurs,” said study lead author and PhD student Tea Maho.

Continuous tooth replacement 

A remarkable aspect of the Komodo dragon’s dentition is its continuous tooth replacement throughout life, a trait that is shared with many reptiles, including theropods. However, the Komodo stands out for maintaining up to five replacement teeth per tooth position.

“Having this many teeth within the jaw at a given time is a unique feature among predatory reptiles, and only seen in the Komodo,” noted study co-author Dr. Robert Reisz.

Typically, other reptiles take much longer to replace teeth, ranging from three months to a year, while the Komodo dragon begins forming new teeth every 40 days. This rapid turnover ensures that a broken tooth can be quickly replaced, a critical advantage for a predator.

Stages of tooth morphology 

The experts also uncovered a fascinating correlation between tooth morphology and feeding behavior across different stages of the Komodo dragon’s life. 

Hatchlings and juveniles, with their more delicate teeth, reside in trees to avoid adults and subsist mainly on insects and small vertebrates. As they mature, their teeth undergo dramatic changes, enabling them to descend from the trees and assume their role as formidable apex predators.

“Finally, we also noticed that the front teeth of the Komodo adults are either very small or completely missing. This unusual dental morphology correlates well with their tongue-flicking behavior, using the slender, forked snake-like tongue for foraging for prey without having to open their mouth,” said the researchers.

Broader implications 

This study not only enhances our understanding of the Komodo dragon’s biology but also bridges the gap between the living and the extinct, offering unparalleled insights into the life of theropods. The research underscores the Komodo dragon’s exceptional place in the natural world, not only as a modern-day predator but also as a window into our planet’s ancient past.

“Our results show a strong correlation between dentition, tongue morphology, and feeding behavior of the largest known lizard and some of its closest relatives,” wrote the study authors. “These anatomical, developmental, and behavioral features will hopefully bring new insights to squamate evolution, including the complex patterns of diversification and convergence among members of this large clade.”

“Additionally, the dental morphology and developmental patterns of the Komodo dragon likely can be used as an analogue for carnivorous early synapsids and dinosaurs to gain a better understanding and reconstruct the feeding behaviors of these extinct taxa.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE

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