Looks can be deceiving. New gene study redraws family tree of lizards and puts primitive-looking iguanas (shown here) and relatives at the top instead of bottom of the tree." Credit line: Copyright Eladio Fernandez 2005. (Image is of a West Indian Iguana, genus Cyclura; email address of photographer is firstname.lastname@example.org
The most comprehensive analysis ever performed of the genetic relationships among all the major groups of snakes, lizards, and other scaly reptiles has resulted in a radical reorganization of the family tree of these animals, requiring new names for many of the tree’s new branches. The research, reported in the current issue of the journal C. R. Biologies, was performed by two biologists working at Penn State University: S. Blair Hedges, professor of biology, and Nicolas Vidal, a postdoctoral fellow in Hedges’ research group at the time of the research who now is a curator at the National Museum in Paris.
Vidal and Hedges collected and analyzed the largest genetic data set ever assembled for the scaly reptiles known as squamates. The resulting family tree has revealed a number of surprising relationships. For example, "The overwhelming molecular-genetic evidence shows that the primitive-looking iguanian lizards are close relatives of two of the most advanced lineages, the snakes on the one hand and the monitor lizards and their relatives on the other," Vidal says.
"We gave this group the new name, ’Toxicofera’ because of another discovery, reported in a related paper, that some lizard species thought to be harmless actually produce toxic venom, as do some snakes--including some large monitor lizards in the same family as the giant Komodo Dragon and some large species of iguanians." Vidal, Hedges, and other researchers report this and other discoveries about the early evolution of the venom system in lizards and snakes in a paper led by Bryan G. Fry, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, published in the current issue of the journal Nature. "It’s a really startling thing that so many supposedly harmless lizards actually are venomous," Vidal comments, "but their sharing of this characteristic makes sense now that our genetic studies have shown how closely they are related."
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