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Rapid venom evolution in pit vipers may be defensive

Research published recently in PLoS One delivers new insight about rapid toxin evolution in venomous snakes: pitvipers such as rattlesnakes may be engaged in an arms race with opossums, a group of snake-eating American marsupials. Although some mammals have long been known to eat venomous snakes, this fact has not been factored into previous explanations for the rapid evolution of snake venom. Instead, snake venom is usually seen as a feeding, or trophic, adaptation. But new molecular research on snake-eating opossums by researchers affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History suggests that predators factor into the rapid evolution of snake venom.

"Snake venom toxins evolve incredibly rapidly," says Robert Voss, curator in the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. "Most herpetologists interpret this as evidence that venom in snakes evolves because of interactions with their prey, but if that were true you would see equally rapid evolution in toxin-targeted molecules of prey species, which has not yet been seen. What we've found is that a venom-targeted protein is evolving rapidly in mammals that eat snakes. That suggests that venom has a defensive as well as a trophic role."

Several groups of mammals are known for their ability to eat venomous snakes, including hedgehogs, mongooses, and some opossums. Opossums, which belong to the marsupial family Didelphidae, consist of about one hundred known and several dozen undescribed species. Most of these opossums live in Central and South America, although there is one representative in the north that is familiar to those who spend time outside at night: the Virginia opossum.

Some didelphids, including the Virginia opossum, are known to eat rattlesnakes, copperheads, and some species of tropical pitvipers known as lanceheads. All of these pitvipers have venom containing dozens of highly toxic compounds, including many that attack blood proteins, c

Contact: Michael Walker
American Museum of Natural History

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