Animal Behavior/Coevolution

Coevolution and Evolutionary Arms RacesEdit

Coevolution describes the relationship between species where each exerts selective pressures on the other, thereby affecting each other's evolution. It includes the evolution of a host species and its parasites, predator-prey scenarios, or examples of mutualism evolving through time. As in any complex scenario, explanatory attempts will tempt us to consider ad-hoc explanations that are intuitively appealing but in many instances spectacularly wrong. There is no alternative to using such explanations as functional hypotheses and to subject them to rigorous experimental examination. Moreover, we need to look beyond the current status and consider the likely paths such a system of co-evolution may have undergone in the past. Our final consideration needs to go to the end points of this arms races. Has it ended in a stalemate rather than with the demise of one of the protagonists?

The Rough-skinned Newt and the Common Garter SnakeEdit

Newts are generally slow-moving animals with few defenses. Forming a major component in the diet of Garter Snakes a system of co-evolutionary adaptations appears to have given rise to a spectacular case of an evolutionary arms race.[1] Rough-skinned Newts, common on the western coast of North America, produce extremely high amounts of Tetrodotoxin, a potent blocker of voltage-gated sodium channels in nerve cell membranes. With levels of toxin far exceeding what is needed to kill any other conceivable predator, it is only ingested by garter snakes with a high degree of immunity to the toxin throughout much of the newt's range. In the early stages of this interaction, some newts with an ability to excrete tedrodotoxin may have gained a relative advantage over their conspecifics. With predation pressure selecting for higher levels of poison in newts, snakes with some level of resistance to the poison were deriving a relative advantage. Such resistance emerged through a mutation in sodium channel structure, which retain much of its functionality yet made it less susceptible to a block by tedrodotoxin. Continuing to select for higher levels of toxin on one hand and increased tolerance to it in snakes, the present system may have emerged. The system's progression has, however, entered a stable end point when further increases in immunity to the toxin could only be achieved with a concurrent decrease in neuronal functioning.

At present, newts appear to have won the upper hand. Individual snakes with the highest levels of resistance to the toxin are also characterized by a reduction in motor abilities. Although able to handle even the most toxic newts, this ability is hard-won as it renders them at much greater risks of predation themselves.

In some areas snakes may have prevailed in the evolutionary arms race between predator and prey. Surprisingly, snakes in several geographic locations have developed such extreme resistance to TTX that newt production of the toxin cannot keep up [2]

Animal DomesticationEdit

Domestication is the process in which a relationship between humans and animals shapes the population of both. For years, humans have domesticated animals as a source of food and clothing, companionship, and for travel.[3] Humans pick a particular trait that they like in an animal, find it in a male and female, and then encourage the two to breed. This process is known as artificial selection. It is important to distinguish between animal domestication and taming. Taming refers to the relationship between a single animal and a single person.

Dogs are believed to be the first domesticated animal, but time and location of the beginning, is disputed. Although paleolithic hunters and gatherers domesticated dogs to assist them in hunting, domestication may have started even before then in Southwest Asia (evidence based off of a 14,000 year old dog grave).[4] This was followed by the domestication of sheep and goats (Southwest Asia, 10,000 years ago), cats (Cyprus 10,000 years ago), pigs (Central Asia, 10,000 years ago, and cattle (Northwest Asia, 5,000 years ago). In addition to changes in behavior, most domesticated animals have smaller brains and senses that are less keen.[5] This is believed to be due to a release from the need to survive in the wild.

Domestication is largely a selection for neotenic characteristics, where individuals retain juvenile forms and behaviors into adulthood.[6]

Human biology has changed from this as well. Before the domestication of cattle, the human digestive system would become lactose intolerant once the period of breast feeding had passed. Consumption of cow milk in adults selected for digestive systems that were able handle it.[7] Not all animals are equally suited to domestication. In fact, only about 14 species have undergone successful domestication by humans. A number of key factors aid in domestication, including an easily sustainable diet, reduced levels of aggression, a strong group structure, a capacity to cede the dominant position, and a lack of specific mating conditions


  1. Brodie et al. 2004. Parallel Arms Races between Garter Snakes and Newts Involving Tetrodotoxin as the Phenotypic Interface of Coevolution. J Chem Ecol 31(2): 343-356
  2. Hanifin CT, Brodie ED Jr., Brodie ED III. 2008. Phenotypic Mismatches Reveal Escape from Arms-Race Coevolution, PLoS Biol 6(3): e60. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060060
  3. McGrath J. 2008. How Animal Domestication works. Dog. Domestication, Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. McGrath J. 2008. How Animal Domestication works. Dog. Domestication, Encyclopædia Britannica
  5. Diamond J. 2002. Evolution, consequences of plant and animal domestication, Nature 418 (701)
  6. Yong, E. 2009. Genetic Neoteny, how delayed genes separate human brains from chimps, scienceblogs
  7. McGrath J. 2008. How Animal Domestication works. Dog. Domestication, Encyclopædia Britannica

<<Return to Contents Page | <<Chapter 4