A Snake’s-Eye View

Public Science Lecture Sept. 26 To Focus on Unique Visual Powers of Pit Vipers, Pythons

MELBOURNE, FLA. — Michael Grace, professor of biological sciences at Florida Institute of Technology whose research has been featured on CNN and National Public Radio, in National Geographic magazine and elsewhere, will offer “A Trip Through the Snake Brain: How Pit Vipers and Pythons See the World” at 8 p.m. Sept. 26 as part of the university’s Public Science Lecture Series.

The free lecture takes place in the Olin Engineering Building auditorium (EC118) on the Florida Tech campus, 150 W. University Blvd. in Melbourne.

Pit vipers and pythons use their eyes to see much like we do, but they also possess novel “pit organs” that allow them to see heat. As with a heat-sensing thermal camera, these snakes form an image of their thermal environment, but they do it better than anything else on Earth – natural or artificial.

“What’s more,” Grace said, “information from the snake’s infrared imaging system merges with visual information in the brain, allowing them to see a combined image of both the thermal and the visual worlds at the same time. This makes them truly formidable predators. It’s amazing!”

Recent discoveries in the Grace lab are unravelling the mystery of snake infrared “vision,” from the molecular mechanisms of thermosensation to the wiring of the brain to the behavioral correlates of seeing heat. Grace and his colleagues have used techniques from psychology to train wild pythons recently collected from the Everglades to perform a complex series of tasks – including pushing buttons in response to flashing lights – to teach us how the snakes see the world.

Grace, associate dean of the College of Science, will describe how his work may aid the development of novel artificial heat sensing devices and help us understand the threats of invasive exotic species like the Burmese python.

Following the lecture, at approximately 9 p.m. and weather permitting, Florida Tech’s Student Astronomical Society will open up the university’s 32-inch Ortega telescope for public viewing; three smaller telescopes will be on hand for “astronomical hors d’oeuvres.”

Those interested in some hands-on astronomy and who have a telescope or are thinking about getting one may join the Melbourne Astronomical Society at 6:30 p.m. Friday at their meeting in Room 144 of the Olin Physical Sciences Building.

Maps and directions for all these events and additional information can be found at http://cos.fit.edu/pss/aapls.php/. More information is also available by calling (321) 674-8795.


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