Coevolution of diet and prey-specific venom activity supports the role of selection in snake venom evolution

Axel Barlow, Catharine E. Pook, Robert A. Harrison, Wolfgang Wüster

Abstract

The processes that drive the evolution of snake venom variability, particularly the role of diet, have been a topic of intense recent research interest. Here, we test whether extensive variation in venom composition in the medically important viper genus Echis is associated with shifts in diet. Examination of stomach and hindgut contents revealed extreme variation between the major clades of Echis in the proportion of arthropod prey consumed. The toxicity (median lethal dose, LD50) of representative Echis venoms to a natural scorpion prey species was found to be strongly associated with the degree of arthropod feeding. Mapping the results onto a novel Echis phylogeny generated from nuclear and mitochondrial sequence data revealed two independent instances of coevolution of venom toxicity and diet. Unlike venom LD50, the speed with which venoms incapacitated and killed scorpions was not associated with the degree of arthropod feeding. The prey-specific venom toxicity of arthropod-feeding Echis may thus be adaptive primarily by reducing venom expenditure. Overall, our results provide strong evidence that variation in snake venom composition results from adaptive evolution driven by natural selection for different diets, and underscores the need for a multi-faceted, integrative approach to the study of the causes of venom evolution.

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Footnotes

    • Received January 9, 2009.
    • Accepted March 11, 2009.
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