The story of evolution is filled with antagonists, be they predators and prey, hosts and parasites, or males and females. These conflicts of interest provide the fuel for ‘evolutionary arms races’ – cycles of adaptation and counter-adaptation where any advantage gained by one side is rapidly neutralised by a counter-measure from the other. As the Red Queen of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass said to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
The Red Queen analogy paints a picture of natural foes, wielding perfectly balanced armaments and caught in a perpetual stalemate. But this is an oversimplified view. It is entirely possible for one combatant to develop such a significant advantage that it completely outruns the other and temporarily wins the race.
Charles Hanifin from Utah State University has found one such example among garter snakes and newts living along North America’s west coast. Even though some of the newts pack one of the most powerful poisons used by any animal, they still fall prey to garter snakes that have evolved extreme levels of resistance to them. In some locations, the snakes’ immunity is so complete that the not a single newt is poisonous enough to overwhelm them.