The last European Monitor Lizard

New fossils from Athens show that the European monitor lizards died out significantly later than previously assumed. This is the conclusion reached by researchers from the Universities of Fribourg, Turin and Barcelona.

Monitor lizards are medium to large reptiles which can still be found in Africa, the Near East, South Asia, Indonesia and Australia. All modern monitor lizards belong to the genus Varanus. Among them are some of the most fascinating and impressive reptiles of our age, such as the Komodo Dragon  (Varanus komodoensis), the largest lizard in the world.

Extinct relatives of the monitor lizards have been documented in Europe since the Eocene (56 to 34 million years ago). In our latitudes they reached their greatest distribution in the Miocene (23 to 5.5 million years ago), before they died out in Europe in the late Pliocene (about 2.5 million years ago) – or at least that was the view up till now.

New discovery near Athens
In a new study, the palaeontologists Georgios Georgalis (University of Fribourg and University of Turin), Andrea Villa (University of Turin) und Massimo Delfino (University of Turin und the Free University of Barcelona) describe new remains of monitor lizards from near Athens. These can be dated to the Middle Pleistocene, so less than one million years before our time.

The new finds are thus the youngest monitor lizard fossils ever found in Europe. They prove that these lizards did not die out until much later than previously thought. Moreover, skull bones were also discovered, which is rare in the case of monitor lizards.

Descendant of european monitor lizards
The structure of the skull suggests that the Athenian monitor lizard is more closely related to earlier monitors from Europe than to those of today from the Near East and North Africa. This leads to the conclusion that the recently discovered monitor lizard was more likely a relic of the formerly large European population than a descendant of animals that migrated to Europe later on.

To support this theory, however, further finds are necessary. What is certain, is that the Athenian monitor lizard supports the hypothesis that the European population of monitors declined gradually over time and that the last of these animals lived in Southern Europe before they became extinct there as well. But that apparently occurred much later than previously thought.

  • The article has been pulished in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.