The DNA of Dragon Lizards

What is a dragon lizard?

Dragon lizards belong to the scientific family Agamidae. Agamid lizards are found in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

There are about 70 species of dragon lizards in Australia. They are easy to tell from other Australian lizards because they have:

  • rough scales, sometimes with spines,
  • strong legs,
  • five toes on each foot,
  • large slightly rounded heads, with distinct necks,
  • a fleshy tongue that is not forked, and
  • they are active during the day.

A Thorny Devil, Moloch horridus
Photographer: Alan Henderson / Source: Museum Victoria

Dragon lizards occur in most environments across Australia from tropical rainforests to alpine heaths but they have the largest number of species (highest diversity) in the deserts and semi-arid regions.

Dragon lizards come in many forms, such as the large, well-known Frilled-neck Lizard (Clamydosaurus kingii) from the tropical woodlands of northern Australia and the distinctive Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) which is an ant-eating specialist from the sandy deserts of central Australia.

Nobbi Dragon

A male Nobbi Dragon, Amphibolurus nobbi coggeri, Lake Albacutya, Victoria.
Photographer: Peter Robertson. Source: Wildlife Profiles

Who are the dragon’s closest relatives?

The closest relatives of dragon lizards are the chameleons (Chamaeleonidae). Together the chameleons and dragons form a group known as Acrodont lizards, which refers to their unique teeth. Most lizards have teeth set individually in sockets in the jawbone (pleurodont teeth). In the dragons and chameleons, however, the teeth are fused directly to the jawbone without any sockets (acrodont teeth). Other similarities between chameleons and dragon lizards include intricate ornamentation, horns and elaborate crests.

DNA – the most important molecule in living things

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a molecule found in the cells of all living organisms. It carries the genetic code which determines who you are and what you look like. All DNA is made up of a combination of four chemical units called bases.

The four bases in DNA are:

  • adenine (A)
  • cytosine (C)
  • thymine (T)
  • guanine (G)

The particular order of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs is extremely important, because the order underlies all of life's diversity, even determining whether an organism is a human or another species such as an oak tree, an elephant or a grasshopper.

Did you know?

DNA is the only molecule in living organisms that makes copies of itself (replicates). This is important because when a cell divides the new cells need their own DNA to grow and divide further.

DNA sequencing – cracking the code

DNA sequencing is being used to decipher the DNA code – scientists can then work out how species are related to each other. The more similar an organism’s DNA is to another’s, the more closely related they are.

Did you know?

Unlike DNA in the nucleus, your mitochondrial DNA is inherited from only one parent – your mother. Scientists use mitochondrial DNA sequencing to trace the maternal lineage (the mother, grandmother, great-grandmother etc) and to find out where the common ancestor of all humans lived.  The maternal common ancestor would be known as Mitochondrial Eve.

Discovering Dragon Diversity with DNA

Scientists at Museum Victoria are using DNA to unravel the extraordinary diversity of Australia’s dragon lizards.

In the past, scientists have used what an animal looks like (its morphology) to discover new species and to understand how species are related to each other. But morphology can often be misleading. Australia’s dragons have evolved in unusual ways and some lizards that are not closely related actually look very similar.  Scientists now study patterns of DNA (DNA sequencing) to find out how closely related species are.  Species with the most similar pattern of DNA are most closely related.

Researchers at Museum Victoria have been studying the DNA of three dragon species in Victoria: the Jacky Lizard (Amphibolurus muricatus), the Mountain Dragon (Tympanocryptis diemensis) and the Nobbi Dragon (Amphibolurus nobbi). This research has completely revised our understanding of how these species are related to each other. It has shown that the Mountain Dragon is not related to other species in the group “Tympanocryptis” but is really in the group of lizards known as “Rankinia”. Also DNA sequencing has shown that the two Victorian species belonging to the group Amphibolurus (the Jacky Lizard and the Nobbi Dragon) are not related to each other and the Nobbi Dragon will now be renamed.

Using DNA sequencing, Museum Victoria researchers have also found a number of new species of Australian dragons and these are now in the process of being described by the researchers.

Further Reading

Cogger H. 2000. Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia.  Reed Books.

Wilson S. & Swan G. 2003. Reptiles of Australia. Princeton University Press.

Comments (8)

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pavan kumar 23 April, 2009 23:55
we all know that lizards DNA is useful to regenerate destroyed organs.
lauren 20 May, 2009 02:20
do thorny devis have migration patterns
Discovery Centre 24 May, 2009 14:16

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for your question. We're just checking with our Live Exhibits department about the migration patterns of thorny devils and will get back to you soon.

Jill Wright 10 October, 2009 09:06
Do frilled neck lizards live in Victoria. If not could you suggest what lizard would have a frill and live near Rushworth Victoria. Thanks
Discovery Centre 12 October, 2009 15:45

Hi Jill! No, we don't get Frilled-neck Lizards here in Victoria. The closest thing I imagine you'd see near Rushworth is the Bearded Dragon (Pogona barbata), which has a distinct "beard" of spiked scales around its chin and head. You can find more information about the reptiles in your area by visiting the Bioinformatics site here:

Lyndall Stavrou 23 March, 2015 16:29
What names were chosen for the two thorny devils in the competition ?
Discovery Centre 28 March, 2015 12:33
Hi Lyndall, the Live Exhibits team is just in the process of making the final selection. An announcement will be made soon!
Haval 4 November, 2015 05:34
can you tell me how it changes to the organism’s environment have resulted in the natural selection of certain adaptations. (If a population of organisms moves from one type of environment to another, this can also be thought of as a ‘change’ in their environment)
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