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Ecology & Rewilding

Radiating pain: venom has contributed to the diversification of the largest radiations of vertebrate and invertebrate animals


Understanding drivers of animal biodiversity has been a longstanding aim in evolutionary biology. Insects and fishes represent the largest lineages of invertebrates and vertebrates respectively, and consequently many ideas have been proposed to explain this diversity. Natural enemy interactions are often important in diversification dynamics, and key traits that mediate such interactions may therefore have an important role in explaining organismal diversity. Venom is one such trait which is intricately bound in antagonistic coevolution and has recently been shown to be associated with increased diversification rates in tetrapods. Despite ~ 10% of fish families and ~ 16% of insect families containing venomous species, the role that venom may play in these two superradiations remains unknown.

In this paper we take a broad family-level phylogenetic perspective and show that variation in diversification rates are the main cause of variations in species richness in both insects and fishes, and that venomous families have diversification rates twice as high as non-venomous families. Furthermore, we estimate that venom was present in ~ 10% and ~ 14% of the evolutionary history of fishes and insects respectively.

Consequently, we provide evidence that venom has played a role in generating the remarkable diversity in the largest vertebrate and invertebrate radiations.

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