Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Curiosity Clyde

Our good neighbors, Roy and Tina, have an eight year old son named Kegan, who is one of those kids who has been obsessed about dinosaurs for most of his young life. And I swear that he knows more about more different kinds of dinosaurs, including scientific names, than anyone I have ever met.

Living out in the country, Kegan doesn't have many friends that he can share his enthusiasm with. So a while back, I decided to scan some of the scientific literature for new paleontological discoveries along with maps and images from Google searches, and write letters addressed to him from a field research scientist that I nicknamed "Curiosity" Clyde Calahan. In those letters, I pretend that I had heard through my network of fellow scientists of a dinosaur expert in Crandon with whom I could share some of my new finds.

I had not written one of these letters in several months because I never heard Kegan say anything about them. I thought that he may not have been interested. Then this weekend, his mom mentioned that Kegan had been asking why he never got any more of those letters, and was wondering if Clyde had forgotten about him. So I wrote another one with an explanation for my lapse in communication. Here's the letter:

June 8, 2009

Master Kegan Wilson

I hope that this letter finds you and your research staff well.

Please forgive me for not writing for so long, but I, personally, have not been well at all. I have been stuck in a hospital bed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, for several months and have just now been released.

It was touch and go there for me for quite some time.

I find that I continue to remain a bit too weak to sit up and write with a pen and paper, so I am using a friend's computer this time. This is a pretty interesting, efficient tool for writing. I'll have to get one someday. Too bad they are so hard to carry out into the field when digging for fossils in remote areas. Oh well.

It all started when a friend from the Singapore Zoo called me wondering if I could come up and have a look at a sick Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world's largest existing lizard. Knowing that I am somewhat of an expert on the extinct giant Megalania, which are (or were), after all, even larger relatives of the Komodo Dragon, he thought that perhaps I might be able to figure out what was wrong with their zoo's prize possession.

In fact, when I received his call, I was fairly close by down in Southeastern Queensland, Australia. I was working with a colleague who is a chief model maker for Gondwana Studios, a company based in Tasmania that specializes in making life sized models of dinosaur skeletons for exhibit in some of the world's great Natural History Museums.

I thought it clever that they named their company after the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana that existed before our present day continents drifted apart.

Anyway, Gondwana Studios had been assembling a life-sized model of a Megalania skeleton and wanted my advice on some of the details. Being somewhat of an expert reptile man yourself, I probably don't need to remind you that Megalania was a giant varanid lizard that existed in the Pleistocene era 1.6 million to 40,000 years ago. The varanid lizards include all of the present day monitor lizards. Megalania reached lengths up to almost 20 feet, which makes them the largest terrestrial lizard that ever lived. Its name, Megalania, means "ancient giant butcher". They are believed to have been as nasty as the modern monitor lizards, including the Komodo Dragons. Here's a picture of Megalania's skull.

And here's a picture of the skeleton that we were building along with an artist's drawing of what we think they probably looked like.

As you can see, they probably looked a lot like a modern day Komodo Dragon.

Anyway, I hopped on a plane and flew on up to the Singapore Zoo to talk with Dr. Hang Fai Kwok and find out what was wrong with his Komodo Dragon. It just didn't seem to be acting right or eating much, and Hang Fai was doing a series of tests on it and injecting medicines, but without much success.

I asked what he had been feeding it. Standard commercial lizard chow was his answer. Then I asked when it had eaten last, and was told that it had been several weeks ago now.

Well, remembering that artist's drawing of Megalania, I asked if I could go into the emu pen and catch one to see if the dragon might perk up at the sight of a good fresh meal. He said, "Sure, give it a try."

So I grabbed a rather smallish emu and tucked it under my arm as best I could and slowly carried it into the dragon pen. Sure enough. At the sight of the big bird, the dragon perked its head right up and looked to me like it started drooling.

I asked Hang Fai to photograph this experiment, so he got some pretty good shots. As I walked closer, the dragon opened its mouth wider than I ever thought possible.

Then, before I knew it, that darned dragon made a lunge for the emu in my arms. Not wanting to sacrifice one of the zoo's specimens, I spun to protect the bird. When I did that, the dragon caught the back of my upper arm and started pulling backwards, shredding a bunch of my skin with its small, but razor sharp teeth. Fortunately, Komodo Dragons don't have teeth as large as the Megalania. Nonetheless, it inflicted quite a wound. Here are just a few of the bite wounds after I had them stitched up.

It is also fortunate that the Komodo's skull structure does not allow the biting force of say, a modern salt water crocodile. The killing technique of Komodo Dragons is to bite and slash the prey (the so-called "grip-and-rip" technique), then let go. Unfortunately for me, the prey becomes unusually quiet, loses a lot of blood, and apparently goes into rapid shock. The Komodo then just slowly stalks the prey and devours it. That is almost what happened to me.
Shortly after the attack, I became extremely weak and woozy and faint, and finally I blacked out. Fortunately, Hang Fai was there to save me. The next thing that I knew, I was in a hospital bed.

When I woke up and began to recall what had happened, I became extremely worried about the bite. Most scientists believe that the bite becomes badly infected with germs from the dragon's mouth and the prey dies from the subsequent infection. I wanted to make certain that my bite didn't show evidence of any bad infection, but I couldn't see it because it was on the back of my arm. The kind nurses assured me that they had properly cleansed and disinfected the bite and had given me ample antibiotic medicines.

That reassured me, but then as I was laying there, I began to think that I became too weak too rapidly for an infection from a dirty bite to have caused it. There had to be a poison involved. When Hang Fai came to visit, I asked him what happened to the dragon. He told me that they had to kill it, so I asked him to do a complete anatomical analysis of the dragon's skull and teeth and let me know what they find as soon as possible.

And do you know what they found? There are venom glands in the dragon's jaw that drain out between the teeth. Mass spectroscopy of the venom samples showed that toxins present in the venom accelerates the deep laceration-induced bleeding and drop in blood pressure through PLA2, kallikrein and natriuretic toxins, and further immobilizes the prey with AVIT toxins. The scientists that thought the bacteria in a dirty bite killed the prey are all wrong.

When you look at the teeth in a scanning electron microscope, they have grooves that guide the venom into the wound. They aren't like the hollow fangs of snakes, but are apparently just as effective. And do you know what has me the most excited? Those tooth grooves look almost exactly like the grooves in the teeth that we find in fossil Megalania! The ancient giant butchers were almost certainly venomous too.

EUREKA! That makes Megalania (Varanus priscus) the largest venomous animal to have ever lived.

I talked Kwok into publishing this in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Isn't Science wonderful?

I think that from now on, though, I'm going to stick with fossils.

Your fellow researcher, Clyde.

I then hand addressed an envelope, pasted on some printed Indonesian stamps, stuffed in the letter, and crumpled up the envelope to make it look like it had been in the international mail a while, then delivered it.

Kegan apparently remarked, "Wow. Clyde sure got lucky that time."


  1. That is so awesome that you take the time to do this for him! I bet he treasures these letters from his far away friend!

  2. I feel so inept,I thought it was something that I had my 4-year-old grand nephew convinced that our barn cats were laying eggs.............

  3. Corinne,

    Are you are quite certain that those are actually barn cats? You and your budding Scientist may have discovered North America's first egg-laying Platypussy. Sounds like a good discovery to publish in the American Journal of Irreproducible Results.

    Yours ever questioningly,
    Curiosity Clyde

  4. And you mean Kegan has no idea that YOU are the author of the letters!? Someone will surely have to break the news to him someday. Its kind of you to take the time to put these letters together. Interesting info and photos.....not sure about the stitched arm photo, though.....just me being squeamish...heehee.

  5. Its kind of you to take the time to put these letters together.
    Getting a Payday advance is just a few steps away

  6. most of this information is taken directly from Bryan Fry's new article about Komodos

    A central role for venom in predation by Varanus komodensis (Komodo Dragon) and the extinct giant Varanus (Megalania) priscus