Temporal range: 0.04Ma Late Pleistocene
|Megalania skeletal reconstruction on Melbourne Museum steps|
|Genus:||?Megalania (see text)|
|Species:||?M. prisca (see text)|
The megalania (Megalania prisca or Varanus priscus) was a very large goanna or monitor lizard, now extinct. It was part of a megafaunal assemblage that inhabited southern Australia during the Pleistocene. It seems to have disappeared around 40,000 years ago. The first aboriginal settlers of Australia might have encountered living megalanias. Some Aboriginal Dreaming stories may even be about them.
The name Megalania prisca was coined in 1859 by Sir Richard Owen to mean "Ancient Great Roamer"; the name was chosen "in reference to the terrestrial nature of the great Saurian". Owen used a modification of the Greek word ἠλαίνω ēlainō ("I roam"). The close similarity to the Latin word: lania (feminine form of "butcher") has resulted in numerous taxonomic and popular descriptions of the megalania mistranslating the name as: Ancient Giant Butcher.
Owen introduced the genus Megalania to accommodate the species Megalania prisca. Its status as a valid genus remains controversial, with many authors preferring to consider it a junior synonym of Varanus, which encompasses all living monitor lizards. As the gender of the genera Megalania and Varanus are respectively feminine and masculine, the specific name prisca (fem.)/priscus (masc.) follows suit.
Several studies have attempted to establish the phylogenetic position of the megalania within the Varanidae. An affinity with the perentie, Australia's largest living lizard, has been suggested based on skull-roof morphology. The most recent comprehensive study proposes a sister-taxon relationship with the Komodo dragon based on neurocranial similarities, with the lace monitor as the closest living Australian relative. Conversely, the perentie is considered more closely related to the Gould's and argus monitors.
The lack of complete or nearly complete fossil skeletons has made it difficult to determine the exact dimensions of the megalania. Early estimates placed the length of the largest individuals at 7 m (23 ft), with a maximum weight of approximately 600–620 kg (1,300–1,400 lb). However, more recent and more rigorous studies give very different results from one another.
In 2002, Stephen Wroe determined that the species had a maximum length of 4.5 m (15 ft) and a weight of 331 kg (730 lb), while its average length would have been around 3.5 m (11 ft), and mean body weight would have been between 97–158 kg (210–350 lb). He concluded that the earlier estimates reaching lengths of 6 m (20 ft) or more and a weight of several tons were exaggerations based upon flawed methodologies. A study published in 2009 utilizing Wroe's size estimates and an analysis of 18 closely related lizard species estimated a sprinting speed of 2.6–3 m/s (5.8–6.7 mph). This speed is comparable to that of the extant freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni).
However, Ralph Molnar in 2004 determined a range of potential sizes for the megalania, made by scaling up from dorsal vertebrae, after he determined a relationship between dorsal vertebrae length and total body length. If it had a long thin tail like the lace monitor (Varanus varius), then it would have reached a length of 7.9 metres (26 ft), while if its tail-to-body proportions were more similar to that of the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), then a length of around 7 m (23 ft) is more likely. Taking the maximal 7 m (23 ft) length, he estimated a weight of 1,940 kg (4,300 lb), with a leaner 320 kg (710 lb) being average.
The megalania is the largest terrestrial lizard known to have existed. Judging from its size, it would have fed mostly upon medium to large sized animals, including any of the giant marsupials like Diprotodon along with other reptiles and small mammals, as well as birds and their eggs and chicks. It had heavily built limbs and body and a large skull complete with a small crest in between the eyes, and a jaw full of serrated blade-like teeth.
Some scientists regard with skepticism the contention that megalanias were the only, or even principal, predators of the Australian Pleistocene megafauna. They note that the "marsupial lion" (Thylacoleo carnifex) has been implicated with the butchery of very large Pleistocene mammals, while the megalania has not. In addition, they note that megalania fossils are extremely uncommon, in contrast to Thylacoleo carnifex with its wide distribution across Australian Pleistocene deposits.
It has been suggested that, if one were to reconstruct the ecosystems that existed before the arrival of the humans on Australia, it would be desirable to introduce Komodo dragons to represent the megalania.
Along with other varanid lizards, such as the Komodo dragon and the lace monitor, the megalania belongs to the proposed clade Toxicofera, which contains all known reptile clades possessing toxin-secreting oral glands, as well as their close, non-venomous relatives, including Iguania, Anguimorpha, and Serpentes. Thus, being a member of Anguimorpha, this makes megalania the largest venomous vertebrate known to have existed.
Claims of survival
While there are occasional reports from Australia and New Guinea of giant lizards similar to the megalania, these reports only began after the species was first described and became publicly known. There is no credible scientific evidence of the existence of a surviving population.
- Owen R. (1859). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 149. pp. 43–48. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
- Lydekker R. (1888), Catalog of the fossil Reptilia in the British Museum (Natural History) Cromwell Road S.W. Pt. 1: The Orders Ornithosauria, Crocodilia, Squamata, Rhynchocephalia, and Proterosauria, London: The Trustees. Cited in Molnar RE (2004), "The long and honorable history of monitors and their kin", in King, Ruth Allen; Pianka, Eric R.; King, Dennis, Varanoid lizards of the world, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 45, ISBN 0-253-34366-6.)
- Molnar RE (2004). "History of monitors and their kin". In King, Ruth Allen; Pianka, Eric R.; King, Dennis. Varanoid lizards of the world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 588. ISBN 0-253-34366-6.
- "Wildfacts - Megalania, giant ripper lizard". BBC. 2008. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
- Hancock, Peter (2012). "The Crocodile That Wasn't - An eye-witness account of extinct megafauna". Amazon. Retrieved 2013-02-20.
- Molnar, Ralph E. (2004). Dragons in the dust: the paleobiology of the giant monitor lizard Megalania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34374-7.
- Lee MSY (1996). "Possible affinities between Varanus giganteus and Megalania prisca". Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 39: 232.
- Head, JJ.; Barrett, PM.; Rayfield, EJ. (2009). "Neurocranial osteology and systematic relationships of Varanus (Megalania) prisca Owen, 1859 (Squamata: Varanidae)". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 155: 445–457.
- Hecht, M. (1975). "The morphology and relationships of the largest known terrestrial lizard, Megalania prisca Owen, from the Pleistocene of Australia". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 87: 239–250.
- Wroe, S. (2002). "A review of terrestrial mammalian and reptilian carnivore ecology in Australian fossil faunas, and factors influencing their diversity: the myth of reptilian domination and its broader ramifications". Australian Journal of Zoology 50: 1–24. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
- Megafaunal extinction in the late Quaternary and the global overkill hypothesis (2004). Alcheringa 28: 291–331.
- Rich T, Hall B (1984). "Rebuilding a giant lizard". In Clayton, Georgina; Archer, Michael. Vertebrate zoogeography & evolution in Australasia: (animals in space and time). Carlisle, W.A.: Hesperian Press. ISBN 0-85905-036-X.
- Klein, Richard; Martin, Paul (1984). Quaternary extinctions: a prehistoric revolution. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1100-4.
- Clemente CJ, Thompson GG, Withers PC (2009). Journal of Zoology 278. pp. 270–280. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00559.x. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
- Wroe S, Myers TJ, Wells RT & Gillespie, A (1999). "Estimating the weight of the Pleistocene marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex (Thylacoleonidae : Marsupialia): implications for the ecomorphology of a marsupial super-predator and hypotheses of impoverishment of Australian marsupial carnivore faunas". Australian Journal of Zoology 47: 489–498. doi:10.1071/ZO99006.
- Flannery, Tim (2002). The future eaters: an ecological history of the Australasian lands and people. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3943-4.
- Vidal, Nicholas; Hedges, S. Blair (2009). "The molecular evolutionary tree of lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians". Comptes rendus biologies 332: 129–139. doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2008.07.010. PMID 19281946.
- Fry, B. et al (February 2006). "Early evolution of the venom system in lizards and snakes" (PDF). Nature 439 (7076): 584–588. doi:10.1038/nature04328. PMID 16292255.
- Barry C (2009). "Komodo Dragons Kill With Venom, Researchers Find". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2012-03-22.
- Fry, B. et al (2009). "A central role for venom in predation by Varanus komodoensis (Komodo Dragon) and the extinct giant Varanus (Megalania) priscus". PNAS 106 (22): 8969–74. doi:10.1073/pnas.0810883106. PMC 2690028. PMID 19451641.
- "Australian Giant Reptilian Monsters - Queensland Reports". Retrieved 2012-03-22.