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The evolution of venom-delivery systems in snakes



    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Herpetology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
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The Colubroidea represents approximately 2300 of the 2700 species of living snakes and includes all venomous taxa. Although many morphological studies of colubroid snakes have been carried over the last hundred years, the phylogenetic relationships within this group are poorly known. In this study, components of the venom-delivery system (VDS) were examined within the context of two conflicting phylogenetic hypotheses proposed in 1988 by Cadle and in 1998 by Kraus & Braun. The results suggest that several major morphological changes occurred early in colubroid evolution: a Duvernoy's gland evolved, the posterior maxillary teeth became specialized relative to the anterior maxillary teeth, and the attachment of the pterygoideus muscle moved forward to a position associated with the posterior maxillary teeth. These innovations may have allowed the great radiation of colubroid snakes that led to the Colubroidea representing such a large percentage of living snakes. More recently, three separate lineages of colubroids have independently evolved highly specialized front-fanged VDSs with large and complex venom glands, venom gland compressor muscles, and tubular fangs. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 137, 337−354.