How Snakes See Two Ways

"For the eyes, we simply put a little patch over the eye," he says. When the snake later sheds its skin, as all good snakes do, it sheds the patch as well.

"It's very safe for the animal," he says.

A similar procedure worked for the infrared receptors.

That allowed the researchers to zero in on the various components of the snakes' systems, and the research has turned up some surprising findings. The infrared sensors can detect wavelengths of 10 micrometers, and "that's extremely low-energy radiation," Grace says. That means that a snake can "see" a warm-blooded animal even with its eyes closed.

The infrared sensors are actually receptor cells in the pit organ, and the research indicates that they come in different varieties, possibly to "look" at different wavelengths in the infrared. That would give the snake a sort of "color vision," according to Atsuko Matsushita, a visiting scientist at Florida Tech who is working on the project.

With the help of the electrical tape, the researchers found that their subjects were able to get along quite nicely, even if temporarily impaired. If they blocked out the eyes, the snakes functioned with just their infrared sensors. If the researchers knocked out those sensors, the snakes used their eyes.

Thus the snakes were able to switch back and forth between the two systems.

Detecting Tumors

All of this suggests that the reward for borrowing technology from snakes may be very high indeed.

Grace, who studied at two medical schools before returning to his passion for snakes, believes that if we could somehow replicate the extremely sensitive infrared sensors of the pit viper, it might be possible to detect very small temperature changes in parts of the human body.

A tumor, for example, requires an increased flow of blood to grow, possibly resulting in a slightly elevated temperature around the tumor.

Any change would be so small, Grace says, that "no detectors that we have available now would be able to detect it."

But a snake might know it's there.

Someday, because of what snakes might be able to teach us, a physician might also find that tumor before it spreads.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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