Ecological and evolutionary implications of diet in monitor lizards



A survey of 35 species indicates that monitor lizards (Varanus) typically hunt over large areas, search in particular microhabitats, and feed frequently on a wide variety of prey, many of which are relatively small. There is ontogenetic, seasonal, and geographic variation in diet. With some exceptions, invertebrates are the predominant prey, but rare predation on vertebrates is often energetically significant. A few monitors specialize on prey types that occur as occasional items in the diet of species with more generalized diets; these include crabs, snails, orthopterans, lizards, and large mammals. For most species, prey specialization occurs via habitat selection and a variety of prey types and sizes are eaten, as expected for widely searching predators. Comparisons with other anguimorphans suggest that derived features of Varanus are associated with high body temperature and activity levels; specialized chemoreception; and rapid, skillful capture of hidden and/or potentially hard to catch prey. Occasional ingestion of moderately large prey is primitive for Varanoidca (Helodermatidae +Varanidae), accentuating a trend that is perhaps primitive for anguimorphan lizards. Reduction of very large prey prior to ingestion is a derived attribute within Varanus, seen infrequently in several larger species and commonly in V. komodoensis. This study illustrates the synthesis of comparative natural history in a phylogenetic context, a method that addresses the history of organismal change.