Discovery Magazine

Behavioral Neuroscience: Correlates of Extremely High-Sensitivity Thermal Imaging by Snakes

The goal of this behavioral neuroscience research is to determine the mechanisms underlying predatory and defensive behavior guided by an extraordinarily novel sensor in snakes. Pit vipers, pythons and boas possess special organs that form images of the thermal environment in the brain, much like vision occurs in the human brain. Thus, using the pit organ these snakes "see" heat, and this amazing infrared imaging 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. Dr. Grace's behavioral neuroscience laboratory (Florida Institute of Technology) will determine the mechanisms of infrared imaging (thermal imaging) by rattlesnakes and pythons, using molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology and behavior.

This research will identify the molecular and cellular mechanisms of high-sensitivity thermoreception 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 megapredator now firmly established in south Florida, and capable of spreading across the southern United States. This work will help determine how these highly efficient snakes operate in their thermal environments, and should help mitigate the ecological impact of non-native species like the Burmese python.

The research includes hands-on training of graduate and undergraduate students, including women and minorities, in behavioral neuroscience. Finally, whether people consider pythons and pit vipers charismatic or terrifying, they generate tremendous interest, and the Grace laboratory will use this excitement to engage in productive public outreach.