Poisonous Problems: Chemical Defenses Come With Evolutionary Cost

By Christie Wilcox | October 20, 2015 8:00 am
The chemical weaponry of this beautiful little dart frog come at a high evolutionary cost. Photo by Dirk Ercken

The chemical weaponry of this beautiful little dart frog come at a high evolutionary cost. Photo by Dirk Ercken

Poison dart frogs are some of the most stunning species on Earth. But their vivid colors aren’t for aesthetics: they’re meant as a warning to potential predators. For while these frogs are visually stimulating, they are also armed with potent toxins. The poisons in their skin are so powerful that local tribes have been known to create deadly darts simply by rubbing them on the frogs’ backs — hence the name.

One might expect that the evolution of such a successful defense would allow these frogs to diversify faster than their relatives and outcompete their kin for resources and habitats — and, according to a study published in the early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, their toxins do give them a speciation advantage. But, their defenses don’t come cheap: poisonous frog species also go extinct at a faster rate.

“Amphibians are facing global population declines and extinctions,” explained Kevin Arbuckle, a herpetologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Liverpool. “I thought it might be useful to figure out whether defense can influence their chances of diversifying or going extinct.”

Arbuckle was interested in testing a hypothesis proposed fifty years ago, known as “escape and radiate”. The hypothesis predicts that the development of a new way of avoiding being eaten — such as a defensive toxin or camouflage — should allow an animal lineage to diversify faster than others. Thus, one would predict that lineages with such antipredator adaptations would have more species than those without.

The anuran phylogenetic tree, showing toxic and non-toxic linages. Image by K. Arbuckle

The anuran phylogenetic tree, showing toxic and non-toxic linages. Image by K. Arbuckle

But while that sounds like an easy thing to determine, it takes a lot of information about the animals themselves as well as robust statistical analyses to truly put the escape-and-radiate hypothesis to the test. And while the hypothesis has been tested in plants, few animal studies have been able to amass the data necessary to see if escape-and-radiate holds true. Arbuckle realized that frogs and toads provided a perfect opportunity to see if the decades-old idea withstands such empirical examination. “Aside from being really cool animals generally, amphibians are very variable in whether or not they possess chemical defenses,” he said. “I matched [toxicity and coloration] data to what we call a ‘phylogeny’ or ‘evolutionary tree’ and applied some complicated mathematical and statistical models to let me get to the bottom of my questions.”

And, just as predicted, Arbuckle found that toxic defenses led to higher rates of speciation. Both being toxic and pretending to be — having a conspicuous color pattern, even without the poisons to back it up — led to faster diversification in frog and toad lineages. And, not surprisingly, the animals more likely to evolve toxic defenses than to lose them, which makes sense for a trait that spurs speciation. “The study revealed that the strategy an amphibian uses to defend itself can have important implications for its evolution,” said Arbuckle. “However, not all of the relationships we found were as we expected.”

“By far the most surprising finding was that species with a chemical defense, although more likely to undergo speciation, were far more likely to go extinct!” said Arbuckle. The same was not true of the mimics, who only boasted conspicuous coloration. In fact, toxic anurans died out so much more readily that their net diversification rate was slower than their palatable brethren. “This was completely unexpected, and has potential implications for understanding what makes many amphibians vulnerable to extinction.”

But why is it so costly to be poisonous? No one knows.

“As with any good scientific study this one has generated yet more questions,” said Arbuckle, though he has a couple plausible explanations for the patterns he saw. It’s possible that producing and/or storing toxins* is energetically burdensome, and thus poisonous species have to consume more food or sacrifice when it comes to growth or reproductive effort. If that’s true, then those species would struggle more when times are lean than those that don’t need as much fuel. Or, it may have to do with the fact that poisonous species also have what scientists refer to as “slower life histories”: they live longer, take longer to mature, and produce fewer offspring per lifetime (babies which usually require more parental care). While such traits can be beneficial (just look at where they’ve gotten us!), species with slower life histories are more vulnerable when population sizes suddenly shrink — like when an area is struck by Chytrid fungus, one of the current major threats to amphibians.

Arbuckle says the next step is to get to the bottom of this mystery and determine why it’s so evolutionarily expensive to produce poisons. “Although the pattern of extinctions is well-supported by the study, it would be great to have a better handle on what is driving them.”

But perhaps more importantly, Arbuckle would like to investigate whether current extinction patterns echo the historical extinction risks determined by this study. “This is important if we are to relate our work properly to conservation issues today.” Ultimately, such data may help conservation scientists determine which species are most likely to die without our help, ensuring that hard-won resources are used in the most efficient manner possible.


Citation: Arbuckle, K and MP Speed (2015). Antipredator defenses predict diversification rates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online on 19 October 2015 ahead of print. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1509811112

*Not all poisonous frogs produce their toxins themselves! Poison dart frogs are a great example: without their toxic food source, these deadly amphibians become harmless

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    When you have the perfect weapon – loudly advertised so nobody wonders whether you really have it – why would you further invest in things other than advertising? The US Department of Defense is notorious for being able to deliver efforts but not results under all circumstances.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    Producing toxins possibly requires more food energy, but couldn’t that be tested?

    And poisonous species have slower life histories, making them more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

    And poison dart frogs get their toxins from food, so can’t all of these factors be tested using a range of food consumption rates, stressor rates, and different combinations and ratios of toxin-producing vs. non-toxin-producing foods?

  • Juan B MotadePeńa

    predators feed on the weak and old, if you have a perfect weapon,
    or appears to have it, no one will mess with you, so,the weaks and old will
    be able to reproduce at the same rate as the best fitted, that is the reason
    why these animals are decaying.


    • George Padar

      Juan. A very interesting and logical explanation

  • Rainer Schulte

    Most poison dart frog toxins come from their food ( leaf litter insects) and as a waste product- it will be stored in the skin and would be lost when they shed the skin every couple of days. But frogs eat their shed skin- so the toxins are recicled and build up. As result, the frogs get a GRATIS protection which often is reinforced with warning colors. Other frogs mimic the toxic ones and get also a GRATIS protection. I do not see any evolutive “effort” in this chain apart of “cheap” color changes to activate some special chromatophores. IIn other frogs where toxins must be produced by novel biochemical pathways- the situation is different!

  • Debiprasad Ghosh

    Moon mission or fake moon mission, which was more competetive?


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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