The Geographic Mosaic in Parallel: Matching Patterns of Newt Tetrodotoxin Levels and Snake Resistance in Multiple Predator-Prey Pairs

J Anim Ecol. 2020 Jul;89(7):1645-1657. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.13212. Epub 2020 Apr 11.


The Geographic Mosaic Theory of Coevolution predicts that coevolutionary arms races will vary over time and space because of the diverse ecological settings and population histories of interacting species across the landscape. Thus, understanding coevolution may require investigating broad sets of populations sampled across the range of the interaction. In addition, comparing coevolutionary dynamics between similar systems may reveal the importance of specific factors that structure coevolution. Here, we examine geographic patterns of prey traits and predator traits in the relatively unstudied interaction between the Sierra garter snake (Thamnophis couchii) and sympatric prey, the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa), Sierra newt (Ta. sierrae) and California newt (Ta. torosa). This system parallels, in space and phenotypes, a classic example of coevolution between predatory common garter snakes (Th. sirtalis) and their toxic newt prey exhibiting hotspots of newt tetrodotoxin (TTX) levels and matching snake TTX resistance. We quantified prey and predator traits from hundreds of individuals across their distributions, and functional trait matching at sympatric sites. We show strong regional patterns of trait covariation across the shared ranges of Th. couchii and newt prey. Traits differ significantly among localities, with lower newt TTX levels and snake TTX resistance at the northern latitudes, and higher TTX levels and snake resistance at southern latitudes. Newts and snakes in northern populations show the highest degree of functional trait matching despite possessing the least extreme traits. Conversely, newts and snakes in southern populations show the greatest mismatch despite possessing exaggerated traits, with some snakes so resistant to TTX they would be unaffected by any sympatric newt. Nevertheless, individual variation was substantial, and appears to offer the opportunity for continued reciprocal selection in most populations. Overall, the three species of newts appear to be engaged in a TTX-mediated arms race with Th. couchii. These patterns are congruent with those seen between newts and Th. sirtalis, including the same latitudinal gradient in trait covariation, and the potential 'escape' from the arms race by snake predators. Such concordance in broad scale patterns across two distinct systems suggests common phenomena might structure geographic mosaics in similar ways.

Keywords: Taricha (Pacific newt); Thamnophis (garter snake); adaptation; arms race; coevolution; trait matching.