Phylogenetically diverse diets favor more complex venoms in North American pitvipers

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The role of natural selection in the evolution of trait complex-ity can be characterized by testing hypothesized links betweencomplex forms and their functions across species. Predatory ven-oms are composed of multiple proteins that collectively function toincapacitate prey. Venom complexity fluctuates over evolutionarytimescales, with apparent increases and decreases in complexity,and yet the causes of this variation are unclear. We tested alterna-tive hypotheses linking venom complexity and ecological sourcesof selection from diet in the largest clade of front-fanged ven-omous snakes in North America: the rattlesnakes, copperheads,cantils, and cottonmouths. We generated independent transcrip-tomic and proteomic measures of venom complexity and collatedseveral natural history studies to quantify dietary variation. Wethen constructed genome-scale phylogenies for these snakes forcomparative analyses. Strikingly, prey phylogenetic diversity wasmore strongly correlated to venom complexity than was overallprey species diversity, specifically implicating prey species’ diver-gence, rather than the number of lineages alone, in the evolutionof complexity. Prey phylogenetic diversity further predicted tran-scriptomic complexity of three of the four largest gene familiesin viper venom, showing that complexity evolution is a concertedresponse among many independent gene families. We suggest thatthe phylogenetic diversity of prey measures functionally relevantdivergence in the targets of venom, a claim supported by sequencediversity in the coagulation cascade targets of venom. Our resultssupport the general concept that the diversity of species in an eco-logical community is more important than their overall number indetermining evolutionary patterns in predator trait complexity.
Holding ML., Strickland JL., Rautsaw RM., Hofmann EP., Mason AJ., Hogan MP., et al. Phylogenetically diverse diets favor more complex venoms in North American pitvipers. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.. 2021 Apr;118(17):e2015579118. doi:10.1073/pnas.2015579118.
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