Researchers Find Evidence Of Rapid Adaptation Of Burmese Pythons In Florida

Posted: Oct 20 2018, 12:11pm CDT | by , in Latest Science News


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Researchers Find Evidence of Rapid Adaptation of Burmese Pythons in Florida
Credit: University of Texas at Arlington

Genome analysis provides clear evidence of evolution occurring over a very short time scale.

Burmese pythons are among the largest snakes on Earth. This species is native to Southeast Asia, but they have now established a population in Florida State which they previously never inhabited. The population in Florida is flourishing and spreading too.

Researchers already know that invasive Burmese pythons are well-adapted to deal with the Florida environment. Still, there are major gaps in our understanding of their evolutionary changes. Genome analysis can provide valuable insights into how this invasive species evolve to adapt to a new environment.

“In Burmese pythons, we observed the rapid establishment and expansion of an invasive population in Florida, which is quite ecologically distinct from Southeast Asia and likely imposes significant ecological selection on the invasive Burmese python population," said Todd Castoe, biology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington “This situation had all of the hallmarks of a system where rapid adaptation could occur, so we were excited to test for this possibility using cutting-edge genomic approaches.”

Researchers were particularly interested to know if pythons could have adapted to an extreme Florida freeze event in 2010. To find out, researchers collected dozens of samples before and after the freeze event and scanned regions of Burmese python genome. They identified parts of genome that changed significantly between the two periods, providing a clear evidence of rapid evolution.

“The 2010 Florida freeze event led to a 40 percent to 90 percent documented field mortality in invasive Burmese pythons, so if evolution and adaptation were to be occurring, we knew we should see it over this time period that imposed a very strong bottleneck of selection,” said Castoe. “We employed a technique commonly referred to as a genome scan, which identifies regions of the genome that appear to be under strong natural selection, which could contain genes important in adaptation that may have allowed a subset of this population to survive these freeze events.”

During the study, researchers expected to find genes for potential adaptation to cold. Instead, they observed an unusual signal.

“We kept seeing evidence of adaptation in genes related to cell division, organ growth, and tissue development, which admittedly puzzled us at first. We began to wonder whether the signal we were seeing in the genome of Florida Burmese pythons was linked to adaptation in how they regenerated organ systems based on their feeding ecology.” Daren Card said.

Researchers gathered further data to understand the frequency at which pythons are feeding and whether there are physiological changes consistent with more regular feeding.

"These additional analyses showed that Burmese pythons in Florida are constantly feeding and that tissue morphological and gene expression patterns support a more up-regulated physiological state in fasted pythons - Florida pythons appear to have adapted to regulating their digestive physiology to more efficiently eat prey constantly.” Card said.

Burmese pythons have already caused substantial damage in Florida. The rapid adaptation has made them even better invasive predator. As a result, they pose a significant threat to both the sensitive Everglades ecosystem and native species.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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