The evolutionary factors behind cobra venom, the ornate markings on their hoods and the extremely bright warning colourings of some species, have been revealed by a University of Queensland-led international study.
Cobras are one of the world’s most feared types of snakes and are killers in Africa and Asia. The snake’s flesh-eating venom means that survivors of their bites often require amputations – leading to crippling social and economic strains on the community.
“While we knew the results of their venom, how the cobra’s unique defensive venom evolved remained a mystery until now,” said Associate Professor Bryan Fry of the university’s School of Biological Sciences.
The research team studied 29 cobra species and related snakes, finding that the flesh-destroying venom first evolved alongside the broad hoods that make cobras so distinctive.
Dr Fry said further increases in the potency of the toxins subsequently occurred parallel to their warning strategies such as hood markings, body banding, red colouring and spitting.
“Their spectacular hoods and eye-catching patterns evolved to warn off potential predators because unlike other snakes, which use their venom purely for predation, cobras also use it in defence,” he said.
“These results show the fundamental importance of studying basic evolution and how it relates to human health.”
Dr Fry said the next step in the team’s research was to conduct broad antivenom testing.
“Globally, snakebite is the most neglected of all tropical diseases and antivenom manufacturers are leaving the market in favour of products that are cheaper to produce and have a bigger market,” he said.
“Therefore, we need to do further research to see how well those remaining antivenoms neutralise not only the toxins that kill a person, but also those that would cause a severe injury.”
Read more about the team’s findings here Story credit: University of Queensland newsroom.
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