MELBOURNE, FLA.—Florida Institute of Technology Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Michael Grace has 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. 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 piece 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.
His research project is titled, “Behavioral Correlates of Extremely High-Sensitivity Thermal Imaging by Snakes.” The novel research joins biology and psychology students in a project with a behavioral psychology component.
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.
Infrared-imaging snakes use their extremely sensitive facial pit organs to form detailed images of the thermal environment, allowing them to locate prey and alert them to predators. The exotic Burmese pythons propagating in South Florida, for example, have this capability and are using it to decimate other species.
“This is the single best infrared detection system on earth, natural or artificial,” said Grace. “It is extraordinarily sensitive, built of nano-scale components, and it is capable of self-repair. A better understanding of its operation may lead to the development of improved artificial infrared sensors for medical, industrial and defense applications.”
According to Grace the snakes readily learn to sit and orient properly and push the buttons to indicate their understanding of the situation.
The grant supports two graduate students and two undergraduate student researchers. Doctoral candidate Bill McLamb is studying the proteins that may be the molecular sensors of infrared radiation in snakes. Doctoral candidate Sherri Emer, in collaboration with Harvey of the School of Psychology, is training the snakes to perform complicated tasks.
To date, Grace has received more than $1.5 million in funding for his work on the snakes’ infrared sensing ability.