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Scientists investigate regional varieties of rattlesnake venom

"It opens up a lot of new questions about how, at the molecular level, this key and lock analogy works for squirrels," researcher Matthew Holding said.

By Brooks Hays
Scientists investigate regional varieties of rattlesnake venom
Matthew Holder poses with a rattlesnake captured while conducting research in California. Photo by Matthew Holding/Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio, May 19 (UPI) -- New research suggests rattlesnake venom boasts significant regional variety.

By studying regional differences in rattlesnake venom, researchers can better understand the evolution of predator-prey relationships and work to create more effective antivenom.

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Ohio State University scientists collected the venom of northern Pacific rattlesnakes, Crotalus oreganus, and blood samples from California ground squirrels, Otospermophilus beecheyi, at a dozen locations in California.

Researchers then mixed the various samples in petri dishes to gauge the effectiveness of venom varieties against various squirrel populations. Their analysis showed venom samples were most active when pitted against the blood samples of squirrels from the same area. Antibodies in squirrel blood were most effective against venom from snakes living elsewhere.

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"It's like resistance is a lock and venom is the key and I have to have the right key to open my office and another one to open the office next door," lead researcher Matthew Holding, a grad student in evolution, ecology and biology at Ohio State, said in a news release. "You could drive 20, 30 miles down the road and find a lot of variation in the venom and our research suggests that this variation is adapted to overcoming differences in squirrel venom resistance."

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The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, lend support to the idea that predators and prey form a co-evolutionary relationship.

But the research also leaves questions unanswered. Researchers aren't exactly sure why the rattlesnakes have gained the upper hand. The analysis also proved venom activity increases at higher elevations, while the squirrel's defenses were less effective.

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"It opens up a lot of new questions about how, at the molecular level, this key and lock analogy works for squirrels," Holding said.

RELATED Six new rattlesnake species identified in western U.S.

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