Modern day Komodo dragon. Image: William Warby, Flickr

The recent discovery of fossils in Athens, Greece has forever changed the evolutionary history of monitor lizards.

Europe had turned colder and dryer during the Pliocene era and monitor lizards thought to cease to exist in the area, but new evidence now places them towards the end of the time period, close to 2.6 million years ago.

Monitor lizards are large reptiles encompassed by the genus Varanus. The largest is known as the Komodo dragon, capable of growing to more than ten feet in length. Today these carnivorous animals inhabit mixed aquatic and terrestrial environments throughout Asia, Africa, and Oceania. They primarily feed on eggs, fish, smaller reptiles, and small mammals throughout their indigenous ranges.

Scientists discovered the fossils at a site called Tourkobounia just outside of Athens. This new monitor lizard species was determined to be a varanid by a few pieces of skull and a jaw. The largest of the remains is a portion of the upper jaw, measuring 0.7 inches in length. There is also a piece of the lower jaw and both attached and detached teeth accompanying the discovery.

Baby Komodo dragon. Image: Neil, Wikimedia Commons

This fossil was analyzed and thought to be akin to a miniature version of the Komodo dragon. It is most closely related to monitor lizards from the Miocene, dating back between 5 and 23 million years ago.

The findings are published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Researchers are now looking for additional remains of varanids from around Pleistocene Greece. These findings have shed substantial light on the evolutionary history of these lizards during that time period and will hopefully help reveal the reason for their extinction.

Watch this video of a modern day Komodo dragon: