Why viper venom is adapted to its favourite prey
29 May 2009
Venom from different viper species is tailored to its favourite prey, new research says.
Although this might seem obvious, until now biologists thought that viper venom wasn't subject to evolutionary pressures because it's toxic enough to be deadly to all prey.
But venom is costly for a snake to produce. This is especially true for snakes that live in arid habitats with scarce water. So it makes sense for a snake with a specialised diet to produce venom that's highly toxic to its favourite prey, and deliver just enough to kill it.
Knowing about variation in snake venom is crucial for saving lives. Produce an anti-venom specific to the Pakistani saw-scaled viper and it's next to useless when used to treat somebody bitten by a west African oscillated saw-scaled viper. This is exactly what's happening in many African countries. As their anti-venom stocks run low, they unwittingly buy in anti-venom from countries like Pakistan and India.
Dr Wolfgang Wüster, a lecturer at Bangor University's School of Biological Sciences, and his PhD student, Axel Barlow are putting together an evolutionary tree of different snake species and relating this to the type of venom they produce and their diet.
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They will eventually use this information to help design successful anti-venoms for the treatment of snake bites.
Science writer and broadcaster Richard Hollingham visits Wolfgang and Axel at Bangor University to find out more about their work.
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