Michael Grace, Florida Tech’s Snake Charmer
Training Burmese pythons is all in a day’s work for Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Michael Grace. He earned a three-year, $369,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his work on the mechanisms of infrared imaging in pit vipers, pythons and boas. The novel research joins biology and psychology students in a project with a behavioral psychology component.
Part of the research is to make a molecular biological search for the proteins that do the difficult job of sensing very low-energy infrared photons. The other part is, with the use of psychological conditioning, to train snakes
to perform complex behaviors in response to thermal/infrared signals, much as a rat can be trained to press a lever for a food reward. This is considered highly unusual work by the NSF reviewers.
Applied behavior analysis faculty and students are working with Grace to shape the snakes’ behavior to differentially respond to a lighted stimulus. The snake is trained to sit in a particular location with its head facing a certain direction. A stimulus cues the snake to activate a push button with its “nose” on the left or right side of an apparatus. The correct response results in access to a reward—for example, pushing the button opens a door with food behind it.
“This is a unique opportunity to test out behavioral principles on a species that has not been readily utilized in the past,” said Mark Harvey, Florida Tech School of Psychology associate professor.
Grace has received more than $1.5 million in funding for his work on the snakes’ infrared sensing ability.