Molecular ecology

Phenotypic integration in the feeding system of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus).

PMID 25988233


Selection can vary geographically across environments and temporally over the lifetime of an individual. Unlike geographic contexts, where different selective regimes can act on different alleles, age-specific selection is constrained to act on the same genome by altering age-specific expression. Snake venoms are exceptional traits for studying ontogeny because toxin expression variation directly changes the phenotype; relative amounts of venom components determine, in part, venom efficacy. Phenotypic integration is the dependent relationship between different traits that collectively produce a complex phenotype and, in venomous snakes, may include traits as diverse as venom, head shape and fang length. We examined the feeding system of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) across environments and over the lifetime of individuals and used a genotype-phenotype map approach, protein expression data and morphological data to demonstrate that: (i) ontogenetic effects explained more of the variation in toxin expression variation than geographic effects, (ii) both juveniles and adults varied geographically, (iii) toxin expression variation was a result of directional selection and (iv) different venom phenotypes covaried with morphological traits also associated with feeding in temporal (ontogenetic) and geographic (functional) contexts. These data are the first to demonstrate, to our knowledge, phenotypic integration between multiple morphological characters and a biochemical phenotype across populations and age classes. We identified copy number variation as the mechanism driving the difference in the venom phenotype associated with these morphological differences, and the parallel mitochondrial, venom and morphological divergence between northern and southern clades suggests that each clade may warrant classification as a separate evolutionarily significant unit.