Research identifies importance of diet in snake venom evolution

Apr 08, 2009
Research identifies importance of diet in snake venom evolution

Axel Barlow's paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on saw-scaled vipers shows that snakes which have evolved to feed on scorpions have also evolved venom which is more lethal to scorpions, demonstrating that changes in diet have been an important factor in snake venom evolution.

The significance of this discovery lies in the medical treatment of snake bites. Variation in composition between different species or populations of can complicate antivenom treatment. Understanding the evolutionary processes that produce venom variation can therefore lead to better antivenom design and effectiveness. This is particularly relevant in the case of saw-scaled vipers, which are probably responsible for the majority of snakebite deaths in Africa. However, many West African hospitals still rely on imported antivenom from Asia, where the saw-scaled vipers have very different venom composition, and the failure of this imported antivenom has led to many unnecessary deaths.

"This study provides one of the most convincing pieces of evidence to date for the role of natural selection for diet in shaping snake venom composition, a key question in our understanding of venom in snakes," commented Dr Wolfgang Wüster, an expert in snakes and snake venoms and a lecturer at Bangor University's School of Biological sciences.

Currently a first year PhD student at Bangor University, Axel compiled much of the work for his undergraduate final year project, which was part of a wider project on venom evolution funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

"Saw-scaled vipers provide a good model to study venom variation as different species have extremely different diets," explains Axel, "this allows us to investigate the effects of evolutionary changes in diet within a single group of related snake species".

Now 28, Axel studied for his first degree in Zoology at Bangor, followed by a MSc in Ecology also at Bangor. He is currently funded by the NERC to follow a PhD investigating genetic variation in Southern African snakes. He comes originally from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire.

More information: Work begun as part of an undergraduate Honours project is to be published in the prestigious journal, . (available online at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2009/03/26/rspb.2009.0048.abstract)

Provided by Bangor University

Explore further: Sea star disease strikes peninsula marine centers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Snake venoms share similar ingredients

Dec 20, 2007

Venoms from different snake families may have many deadly ingredients in common, more than was previously thought. A study published in the online open access journal BMC Molecular Biology has unexpectedly discovered three- ...

Early mammal could bite like a snake

Jun 22, 2005

A small mammal that lived around 60 million years ago had poisonous fangs that enabled it to bite like a snake, the first time that an extinct mammal species has been found with this capacity, a new study says.

Here's venom in your eye: Spitting cobras hit their mark

Jan 22, 2009

Spitting cobras have an exceptional ability to spray venom into eyes of potential attackers. A new study published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology reveals how these snakes maximize their chances of hitting the ta ...

Squirrels use snake scent

Dec 19, 2007

California ground squirrels and rock squirrels chew up rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur to mask their scent from predators, according to a new study by researchers at UC Davis.

How Snakes Survive Starvation

Aug 27, 2007

Starving snakes employ novel survival strategies not seen before in vertebrates, according to research conducted by a University of Arkansas biologist. These findings could be used in conservation strategies ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in coccidiosis research

11 hours ago

Biological researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are a step closer to finding a new cost-effective vaccine for the intestinal disease, coccidiosis, which can have devastating effects on poultry ...

User comments : 0