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: Herd mentality: Are we programmed to make bad decisions?

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

Contrasting views of kin selection assessed

2 hours ago

In an article to be published in the January issue of BioScience, two philosophers tackle one of the most divisive arguments in modern biology: the value of the theory of "kin selection."

Microbiome may have shaped early human populations

21 hours ago

We humans have an exceptional age structure compared to other animals: Our children remain dependent on their parents for an unusually long period and our elderly live an extremely long time after they have ...

DNA sheds light on why largest lemurs disappeared

Dec 16, 2014

Ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of giant lemurs that lived thousands of years ago in Madagascar may help explain why the giant lemurs went extinct. It also explains what factors make some surviving ...

Stay complex, my friends

Dec 16, 2014

The KISS concept – keep it simple, stupid – may work for many situations. However, when it comes to evolution, complexity appears to be key for prosperity and propagating future generations.

Reshaping the horse through millennia

Dec 15, 2014

Whole genome sequencing of modern and ancient horses unveils the genes that have been selected by humans in the process of domestication through the latest 5.500 years, but also reveals the cost of this domestication. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.