Because coevolution takes place across a broad scale of time and space, it is virtually impossible to understand its dynamics and trajectories by studying a single pair of interacting populations at one time. Comparing populations across a range of an interaction, especially for long-lived species, can provide insight into these features of coevolution by sampling across a diverse set of conditions and histories. We used measures of prey traits (tetrodotoxin toxicity in newts) and predator traits (tetrodotoxin resistance of snakes) to assess the degree of phenotypic mismatch across the range of their coevolutionary interaction. Geographic patterns of phenotypic exaggeration were similar in prey and predators, with most phenotypically elevated localities occurring along the central Oregon coast and central California. Contrary to expectations, however, these areas of elevated traits did not coincide with the most intense coevolutionary selection. Measures of functional trait mismatch revealed that over one-third of sampled localities were so mismatched that reciprocal selection could not occur given current trait distributions. Estimates of current locality-specific interaction selection gradients confirmed this interpretation. In every case of mismatch, predators were “ahead” of prey in the arms race; the converse escape of prey was never observed. The emergent pattern suggests a dynamic in which interacting species experience reciprocal selection that drives arms-race escalation of both prey and predator phenotypes at a subset of localities across the interaction. This coadaptation proceeds until the evolution of extreme phenotypes by predators, through genes of large effect, allows snakes to, at least temporarily, escape the arms race.
Arms races between natural enemies can lead to the rapid evolution of extreme traits, high degrees of specialization, and the formation of new species. They also serve as the ecological model for the evolution of drug resistance by diseases and for host–pathogen interactions in general. Revealing who wins these arms races and how they do so is critical to our understanding of these processes. Capitalizing on the geographic mosaic of species interactions, we examined the dynamics of the arms race between snakes and their toxic newt prey. Garter snakes in some populations have evolved dramatic resistance to the tetrodotoxin defense of the their local prey. By evaluating the pattern of mismatches between toxicity and resistance, we discovered that predators sometimes escape the arms race through the evolution of extreme resistance, but that prey never come out ahead. The reason for this one-sided outcome appears to depend on the molecular genetic basis of resistance in snakes, wherein changes to a single amino acid residue can confer huge differences in resistance.
Who wins in the arms race between predators and prey? In the interaction between snakes and toxic newts, predators sometimes escape the arms race through the evolution of extreme resistance, but prey never come out ahead.