Monitor lizards have long necks, powerful tails and claws, and well-developed limbs. The adult length of extant species ranges from 20 cm (7.9 in) in some species, to over 3 m (10 ft) in the case of the Komodo dragon, though the extinct varanid known as Megalania (Varanus priscus) may have been capable of reaching lengths more than 7 m (23 ft). Most monitor species are terrestrial, but arboreal and semiaquatic monitors are also known. While most monitor lizards are carnivorous, eating eggs, smaller reptiles, fish, birds, and small mammals, some also eat fruit and vegetation, depending on where they live.
Most monitor lizards are almost entirely carnivorous, consuming prey as varied as insects, crustaceans, arachnids, myriapods, mollusks, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Most species feed on invertebrates as juveniles and shift to feeding on vertebrates as adults. Deer make up about 50% of the diet of adults of the largest species, Varanus komodoensis. In contrast, three arboreal species from the Philippines, Varanus bitatawa, Varanus mabitang, and Varanus olivaceus, are primarily fruit eaters. Although normally solitary, groups as large as 25 individual monitor lizards are common in ecosystems that have limited water resources.
The genus Varanus is considered unique among animals in that its members are relatively morphologically conservative, yet show a very large size range. Finer morphological features such as the shape of the skull and limbs do vary, though, and are strongly related to the ecology of each species.
Monitor lizards maintain large territories and employ active-pursuit hunting techniques that are reminiscent of similar-sized mammals. The active nature of monitor lizards has led to numerous studies on the metabolic capacities of these lizards. The general consensus is that monitor lizards have the highest standard metabolic rates of all extant reptiles.
Monitor lizards have a high aerobic scope that is afforded, in part, by their heart anatomy. Whereas most reptiles are considered to have three-chambered hearts, the hearts of monitor lizards – as with those of boas and pythons – have a well developed ventricular septum that completely separates the pulmonary and systemic sides of the circulatory system during systole. This allows monitor lizards to create mammalian-equivalent pressure differentials between the pulmonary and systemic circuits, which in turn ensures that oxygenated blood is quickly distributed to the body without also flooding the lungs with high-pressure blood.
Anatomical and molecular studies indicate that all varanids (and possibly all lizards) are partially venomous.
Monitor lizards are oviparous, laying from seven to 37 eggs, which they often cover with soil or protect in a hollow tree stump. Some monitor lizards, including the Komodo dragon, are capable of parthenogenesis.
The family Varanidae probably originated in Asia at least 65 million years ago, although some estimates are as early as the late Mesozoic (112 million years ago). Monitor lizards probably expanded their geographic range into Africa between 49 and 33 million years ago, possibly via Iran, and to Australia and the Indonesian archipelago between 39 and 26 million years ago.
During the Late Cretaceous era, monitor lizards or their close relatives are believed to have evolved into amphibious and then fully marine forms, the mosasaurs, some of which reached lengths of 12 m (39 ft) or more.
Snakes were believed to be more closely related to monitor lizards than any other type of extant reptile; however, snakes have been more recently proposed to be the sister group of the clade of iguanians and anguimorphs. Like snakes, monitor lizards have forked tongues, which they use to sense odors.
During the Pleistocene epoch, giant monitor lizards lived in Southeast Asia and Australasia, the best known fossil being the megalania (Varanus priscus, a giant goanna formally known as Megalania prisca). This species is an iconic member of the Pleistocene megafauna of Australia, thought to have survived up until around 50,000 years ago.
The generic name Varanus is derived from the Arabic word waral/waran ورن/ورل, from a common Semitic root ouran, waran, or waral, meaning "dragon" or "lizard beast".
In English, they are known as "monitors" or "monitor lizards". The earlier term "monitory lizard" became rare by about 1920. The name may have been suggested by the occasional habit of varanids to stand on their two hind legs and to appear to "monitor", or perhaps from their supposed habit of "warning persons of the approach of venomous animals".
Due to confusion with the large New World lizards of the family Iguanidae, the lizards became known as "goannas" in Australia. Similarly, in South African English, they are referred to as leguaans, or likkewaans, from the Dutch term for the Iguanidae, leguanen.
Some species of varanid lizards can count; studies feeding V. albigularis varying numbers of snails showed that they can distinguish numbers up to six.V. niloticus lizards have been observed to cooperate when foraging; one varanid lures the female crocodile away from her nest, while the other opens the nest to feed on the eggs. The decoy then returns to also feed on the eggs.Komodo dragons, V. komodoensis, at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, recognize their keepers and seem to have distinct personalities.
Monitor lizard meat, particularly the tongue and liver, is eaten in parts of India and Malaysia as an alleged aphrodisiac.
In parts of Pakistan and southern India, different parts of monitor lizards are used for a variety of medical purposes. The flesh is eaten for the relief of rheumatic pain, abdominal fat is used as a salve for skin infections, oil and fat are used to treat hemorrhoids or chronic pain, and the oil is used as an aphrodisiac lubricant (sande ka tel).
"Large-scale exploitation" of monitor lizards is undertaken for their skins, which are described as being "of considerable utility" in the leather industry. In Papua New Guinea, monitor lizard leather is used for membranes in traditional drums (called kundu) , and these lizards are referred to as kundu palai or "drum lizard" in Tok Pisin, the main PNG trade language.
The meat of monitor lizards is eaten by some tribes in India, Thailand, Philippines, Australia and in West Africa as a supplemental meat source. It is eaten in Vietnam's Mekong delta as a delicacy.
The meat of monitor lizards is used in Nepal for medicinal and food purpose.
According to IUCN Red List of threatened species, most of the monitor lizards species fall in the categories of least concern, but the population is decreasing globally. All but five species of monitor lizards are classified by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora under Appendix II, which is loosely defined as species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become so unless trade in such species is subject to strict regulation to avoid use incompatible with the survival of the species in the wild. The remaining five species – V. bengalensis, V. flavescens, V. griseus, V. komodoensis, and V. nebulosus – are classified under CITES Appendix I, which outlaws international commercial trade in the species.
The yellow monitor, V. flavescens is protected in all range countries except Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
In Tamil Nadu and all other parts of South India, catching or killing of monitor lizards is banned under the Protected Species Act.
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