A Russian Doll of Resistance: Nested Gains and Losses of Venom Immunity in Varanid Lizards

Int J Mol Sci. 2024 Feb 23;25(5):2628. doi: 10.3390/ijms25052628.


The interplay between predator and prey has catalyzed the evolution of venom systems, with predators honing their venoms in response to the evolving resistance of prey. A previous study showed that the African varanid species Varanus exanthematicus has heightened resistance to snake venoms compared to the Australian species V. giganteus, V. komodoensis, and V. mertensi, likely due to increased predation by sympatric venomous snakes on V. exanthematicus. To understand venom resistance among varanid lizards, we analyzed the receptor site targeted by venoms in 27 varanid lizards, including 25 Australian varanids. The results indicate an active evolutionary arms race between Australian varanid lizards and sympatric neurotoxic elapid snakes. Large species preying on venomous snakes exhibit inherited neurotoxin resistance, a trait potentially linked to their predatory habits. Consistent with the 'use it or lose it' aspect of venom resistance, this trait was secondarily reduced in two lineages that had convergently evolved gigantism (V. giganteus and the V. komodoensis/V. varius clade), suggestive of increased predatory success accompanying extreme size and also increased mechanical protection against envenomation due to larger scale osteoderms. Resistance was completely lost in the mangrove monitor V. indicus, consistent with venomous snakes not being common in their arboreal and aquatic niche. Conversely, dwarf varanids demonstrate a secondary loss at the base of the clade, with resistance subsequently re-evolving in the burrowing V. acanthurus/V. storri clade, suggesting an ongoing battle with neurotoxic predators. Intriguingly, within the V. acanthurus/V. storri clade, resistance was lost again in V. kingorum, which is morphologically and ecologically distinct from other members of this clade. Resistance was also re-evolved in V. glebopalma which is terrestrial in contrast to the arboreal/cliff dwelling niches occupied by the other members of its clade (V. glebopalma, V. mitchelli, V. scalaris, V. tristis). This 'Russian doll' pattern of venom resistance underscores the dynamic interaction between dwarf varanids and Australian neurotoxic elapid snakes. Our research, which included testing Acanthophis (death adder) venoms against varanid receptors as models for alpha-neurotoxic interactions, uncovered a fascinating instance of the Red Queen Hypothesis: some death adders have developed more potent toxins specifically targeting resistant varanids, a clear sign of the relentless predator-prey arms race. These results offer new insight into the complex dynamics of venom resistance and highlight the intricate ecological interactions that shape the natural world.

Keywords: evolution; neurotoxin; nicotinic acetylcholine receptor; resistance; varanid; venom.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Elapid Venoms
  • Elapidae
  • Lizards* / physiology
  • Russia
  • Snake Venoms
  • Venomous Snakes


  • Snake Venoms
  • Elapid Venoms