Journal article Open Access

Thermal Modeling of Snake Infrared Reception: Evidence for Limited Detection Range

Jones, B. S.; Lynn, W. F.; Stone, M. O.

For more than 40 years, information has circulated with regard to the sensitivity of infrared pit organs in both boid and crotaline snakes (pythons and pit vipers, respectively). The most often quoted sensitivity is 0.003°C and this value is based on the work of Bullock and co-workers (1956). Missing from previous work was a quantitative model of radiation transfer that would report sensitivity not in terms of degrees Celsius, but rather sensing distance. Since prey detection is often cited as the function of the infrared pit organ, quantification of this sensing distance seemed to be an important value that was missing from the literature. In this paper, we model the radiation transfer process from a 37°C object, i.e. warm-blooded prey, to an infrared pit organ. The model tries to answer a very basic question—at what distance does the thermal signature of a 37°C object blend into the background for a non-imaging biological infrared sensor? The output of the model, the sensing distance, is of particular interest in comparing biological infrared sensors to current semiconductor-based infrared (IR) detectors—largely because of inappropriate comparisons between the temperature sensitivity of IR snake reception and imaging IR cameras. The purpose of the presented work to make more appropriate comparisons, i.e. sensing distance. This sensing distance output indicates an extremely short detection distance (<5 cm)—contradictory to what is observed experimentally. This dichotomy raises further questions regarding how the biological system amplifies this weak signal.

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