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Call it a sixth sense, or evolution’s gift to these cold-blooded reptiles: some snakes have infrared vision. Also called “heat vision,” the infrared rays, which have longer wavelengths than those of visible light, signify the presence of warm-blooded prey in 3 dimensions, which helps snakes aim their attacks. Pit vipers and boids, the two snake types that possess this ability, have heat-sensitive membranes that can detect the difference in temperature between a moving prey—such as a running mouse—and its surroundings on the scale of milliKelvins.
The detection system, which consists of cavities located on each side of the head called “pit organs,” operates on a principle similar to that of a pinhole camera, explain scientists Andreas Sichert, Paul Friedel and J. Leo van Hemmen in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters. A pinhole camera is a camera without a lens, where light from an image passes through a very small hole. Similarly, a pit organ’s aperture is about 1 mm—large enough to allow the snake to quickly detect moving prey. Some scientists (de Cock Buning) even suggest that pythons—a type of boid—have a variety of differently shaped pit organs, each serving a different biological function.