How humans were shaped by a biological arms race between apes and snakes

Ancient ancestors of humans were locked in a biological arms race with deadly snakes, with the fallout affecting us to this day, new research has discovered.

Researchers from the Venom Evolution Lab at the University of Queensland have been looking into the question of how much the interaction between primates and snakes shaped the development of both.

An ape and a snake: Prof Bryan Fry with a black cobra in Pakistan

Experts have previously suggested that interactions with snakes influenced a number of things both physical and social about the greater apes, which include gorillas, chimpanzees and humans.

The lab’s team leader Bryan Fry said their research suggested the last common ancestor had a sharp increase of resistance to cobra venom.

“Across the board, the African and Asian primates show some level of resistance to cobra venom, which makes sense because they’re living alongside a lot of large cobra species which will readily defend themselves,” Professor Fry said.

“What we found is that in the last common ancestor of humans, chimps and gorillas, you have an animal which is now partly bipedal, spending a lot more time on the ground, so it’s encountering cobras a lot more.”

The researchers looked at the nerve receptors of a range of primates from around the world, and compared their reaction to cobra venom.

Professor Fry said lemurs from Madagascar and primates from South and Central America did not have strong reactions to cobra venom, those from Africa and Asia did.

“Chimps, gorillas and humans as a group are marginally less sensitive to cobra venom than any other primate,” he said.

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