If you were going to pick the traits of a single animal to confer on a superhero, you probably wouldn’t pick the Virginia opossum. Possums are ubiquitous, scruffy, ratlike marsupials, their toothy grins giving the not entirely inaccurate impression that they don’t have much going on upstairs. Until recently, the nicest thing I could think to say about them is that they eat a lot of ticks.
Blood-sucking Lyme disease vectors are only a small part of the opossum’s eclectic diet, however. They also eat quite a few poisonous snakes, and this has apparently led them to evolve a trait I could call a superpower without exaggeration: opossum blood is resistant to snake venom.
This curious and useful ability was first documented by J.A. Kilmon in a 1976 paper [$a], in which Kilmon reported field observations and laboratory trials showing that opossums tolerate snakebites without visible ill effect. (If animal experimentation makes you queasy, you might want to go read something else about now. Perhaps a nice post about gerbils?)
A natural bite was observed in the field by a 160 cm eastern diamondback on an adult opossum, Didelphis virginiana. The opossum displayed no apparent distress and this suggested a remarkable tolerance by that animal to envenomation. In order to ascertain if an actual envenomation did take place, Mr. Seashole conducted field experiments by manually causing snakes to inflict actual bites on captured opossums. None of the bites caused visible signs of distress to the opossums.
Kilmon brought possums back to the lab, anesthetized them, hooked them up to heart monitors, and “inflicted” bites on them from diamondback and timber rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and at least one cobra. (Kilmon reports he used 15 snakes in total, but doesn’t break that number down by species.) “None of the five opossums,” he wrote, “developed observable local reactions other than trauma attributable to fang penetration and none developed observable systemic effect, exhibiting negligible alteration of heart rate and respiration.”
Finally Kilmon injected an anesthetized opossum with enough water moccasin venom to kill five fifteen-kilogram dogs, and observed no reaction beyond a brief drop in blood pressure and small spike in pulse rate—when the possum awoke, it was “apparently healthy.” Upon sacrificing and dissecting the animal, Kilmon found no evidence of organ damage.
Kilmon concludes his brief scientific report with a weird aside about the evolutionary history of opossums, which, had he been writing in 2011, would have made me think his research consisted mainly of skimming the Wikipedia entry for Didelphis virginiana. In the course of reporting the opossum’s taxonomic affiliations and known diet, Kilmon notes offhandedly,
This polyprotodont marsupial is a primitive but also very successful mammal. The opossums of varying species are the only marsupials surviving in the placental world, the predominant marsupial and monotreme mammals of Australia having probably survived due to their isolation. The opossum has remained unchanged for millions of years and probably reached his peak of evolutionary specialization several millions of years ago.
I don’t think he could’ve gotten away with that last sentence in an evolutionary biology journal. It’s true that the common ancestor of opossums and placental mammals (i.e., us) diverged quite a long time ago, that opossum-like critters are known from the fossil record going back that far, and that many opossum traits are thought to be shared with early mammals. But that doesn’t mean opossums “remained unchanged for millions of years.” The lineage leading to modern opossums has been evolving exactly as long as the lineage leading to modern humans—and if the opossum’s lifestyle hasn’t led it to such evolutionary heights as the wheel, war, New York and so forth, then it also hasn’t left the opossum unchanged.
As it happens, a pretty good illustration of this point is the paper that led me to Kilmon’s morbid little study in the first place. Mammalogists Sharon Jansa and Robert Voss have just published a study of one blood protein that may underlie opossums’ resistance to venom. The venom of pit vipers like rattlesnakes and water moccasins targets the blood clotting system—one of the unpleasant effects of a snake bite is internal hemorrhage. So Jansa and Voss examined the evolution of a venom-targeted clotting protein called von Willebrand Factor, or vWF, comparing it across the entire family of opossums, the didelphidae.
Since the evolutionary origin of the family, the vWF of opossum species that prey on snakes has accumulated more changes than vWF in non-snake-eating species. That’s circumstantial evidence for the effect of natural selection continuously acting on vWF over millions of years. Jansa and Voss picked out several specific changes that are unique to snake-eating opossums, and found that they’re associated with a region of vWF that is known to bind with one of the toxins in pit viper venom.
The authors suggest that opossums may have been engaged in a evolutionary “arms race” against snake venom toxins since they first developed a taste for rattlesnake. In other words, not only is the opossum not unchanged since the early history of mammals, one of the traits that has changed continuously since then may be the very feature that piqued Kilmon’s interest.
Jansa, S., & Voss, R. (2011). Adaptive evolution of the venom-targeted vWF protein in opossums that eat pitvipers. PLoS ONE, 6 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020997
Kilmon, J., Sr. (1976). High tolerance to snake venom by the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana. Toxicon, 14 (4), 337-40 DOI: 10.1016/0041-0101(76)90032-5