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  1. The role of natural selection in the evolution of trait complexity can be characterized by testing hypothesized links between complex forms and their functions across species. Predatory venoms are composed of multiple proteins that collectively function to incapacitate prey. Venom complexity fluctuates over evolutionary timescales, with apparent increases and decreases in complexity, and yet the causes of this variation are unclear. We tested alternative hypotheses linking venom complexity and ecological sources of selection from diet in the largest clade of front-fanged venomous snakes in North America: the rattlesnakes, copperheads, cantils, and cottonmouths. We generated independent transcriptomic and proteomic measures of venom complexity and collated several natural history studies to quantify dietary variation. We then constructed genome-scale phylogenies for these snakes for comparative analyses. Strikingly, prey phylogenetic diversity was more strongly correlated to venom complexity than was overall prey species diversity, specifically implicating prey species’ divergence, rather than the number of lineages alone, in the evolution of complexity. Prey phylogenetic diversity further predicted transcriptomic complexity of three of the four largest gene families in viper venom, showing that complexity evolution is a concerted response among many independent gene families. We suggest that the phylogenetic diversity of prey measures functionally relevant divergencemore »in the targets of venom, a claim supported by sequence diversity in the coagulation cascade targets of venom. Our results support the general concept that the diversity of species in an ecological community is more important than their overall number in determining evolutionary patterns in predator trait complexity.

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  2. Ontogenetic changes in venom composition have important ecological implications due the relevance of venom in prey acquisition and defense. Additionally, intraspecific venom variation has direct medical consequences for the treatment of snakebite. However, ontogenetic changes are not well documented in most species. The Mexican Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus nigrescens) is large-bodied and broadly distributed in Mexico. To document venom variation and test for ontogenetic changes in venom composition, we obtained venom samples from twenty-seven C. m. nigrescens with different total body lengths (TBL) from eight states in Mexico. The primary components in the venom were detected by reverse-phase HPLC, western blot, and mass spectrometry. In addition, we evaluated the biochemical (proteolytic, coagulant and fibrinogenolytic activities) and biological (LD50 and hemorrhagic activity) activities of the venoms. Finally, we tested for recognition and neutralization of Mexican antivenoms against venoms of juvenile and adult snakes. We detected clear ontogenetic venom variation in C. m. nigrescens. Venoms from younger snakes contained more crotamine-like myotoxins and snake venom serine proteinases than venoms from older snakes; however, an increase of snake venom metalloproteinases was detected in venoms of larger snakes. Venoms from juvenile snakes were, in general, more toxic and procoagulant than venoms from adults; however,more »adult venoms were more proteolytic. Most of the venoms analyzed were hemorrhagic. Importantly, Mexican antivenoms had difficulties recognizing low molecular mass proteins (<12 kDa) of venoms from both juvenile and adult snakes. The antivenoms did not neutralize the crotamine effect caused by the venom of juveniles. Thus, we suggest that Mexican antivenoms would have difficulty neutralizing some human envenomations and, therefore, it may be necessary improve the immunization mixture in Mexican antivenoms to account for low molecular mass proteins, like myotoxins.« less