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June 3, 2013

Seeing Heat: The Sensory Systems of Boas, Pythons and Pit Vipers


The natural thermal imaging capabilities of snakes could inspire new artificial sensors

With National Science Foundation- (NSF) support, biologist Michael Grace and his team study infrared (thermal) sensors in snakes. The goal of this research is to determine the mechanisms underlying predatory and defensive behavior guided by these extraordinarily novel sensors in snakes. Pit vipers, pythons and boas possess special organs that form images in the brain of the thermal environment, much like vision occurs in the human brain. Thus, these snakes "see" heat, and this amazing system is the most sensitive infrared detector on Earth, natural or artificial. A better understanding of infrared-based thermal imaging in snakes is important not only for understanding complex behavior in these highly efficient predators, but also for understanding the evolution of imaging sensors and the behaviors they support in other animals including people.

"Results from this research could have downstream applications for defense, as well as wildlife management," notes Michelle Elekonich, one of the program directors in the Animal Behavior program within the NSF Directorate for Biological Sciences. "This project cleverly uses behavioral and other tests that allow the snakes to tell us about the capabilities and limits of their heat-sensing receptors, and how they use them. Knowing more about how snakes use this sensory capability is useful for managing invasive species. And, it's certainly helpful for designing new biologically inspired devices."

The Grace laboratory at the Florida Institute of Technology is researching the mechanisms of infrared imaging by rattlesnakes and pythons, using molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology and behavior. This research will identify the molecular and cellular mechanisms of high-sensitivity thermo-reception, and will provide an exciting new motivation-based behavioral assessment of sensory function. This work will advance the development of artificial sensor technologies for industrial, defense, and biomedical applications. It will also provide new insight into the ecology and management of native and invasive species including the diamondback rattlesnake (a pit viper) and the Burmese python, an invasive mega-predator now firmly established in south Florida and capable of spreading across the southern United States.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.