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Toxicon. 1987;25(7):767-77.

Resistance of California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) to the venom of the northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus): a study of adaptive variation.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis 95616.


Recent studies have documented natural resistance to snake venom in a number of diverse mammalian species. The present paper documents for the first time variation in such resistance within one single species, the California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi). This species is a frequent prey of the northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) in certain habitats. Venom resistance was tested directly in two populations of ground squirrels by injection of 1-40 mg/kg venom doses. One population was obtained from a habitat with a high rattlesnake density; the other population came from a rattlesnake-free habitat. Dramatic differences in the response to venom between these populations were manifested, based on a variety of criteria, such as mortality, necrosis and healing time. Resistance to venom was also examined by LD50 tests in groups of mice pre-injected with ground squirrel sera from three rattlesnake-adapted California populations and a non-adapted Arctic population (S. parryii) from snake-free central Alaska. The California ground squirrel sera were 3.3-5.3 times more effective in the in vivo neutralization of venom than the sera from Arctic ground squirrels. Moreover, the level of protection by the sera as reflected by the LD50 values was highly correlated (P less than 0.005) with the level of in vitro squirrel serum-venom binding as quantified by radioimmunoassay (RIA). A subsequent RIA revealed that binding levels of sera from 14 California ground squirrel populations correlated significantly (P less than 0.025) with local rattlesnakes densities; i.e. sera pools from populations sympatric with rattlesnakes exhibited the highest binding, whereas populations living in habitats where rattlesnakes are rare or absent typically exhibited the lowest binding levels, several of which approximated the Arctic control. Taken together, these results demonstrate intraspecific variation that is probably the result of differential natural selection due to northern Pacific rattlesnakes. This intraspecific variation should be taken into consideration when testing for natural resistance in wild-caught species.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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