Vipers, pythons and boas have holes on their faces called pit organs, which contain a membrane that can detect infrared radiation from warm bodies up to one metre away. At night, the pit organs allow snakes to ‘see’ an image of their predator or prey — as an infrared camera does — giving them a unique extra sense.
A study by US researchers, published online in Nature, has now revealed how this works at a molecular level1. Nerve cells in the pit organ contain an ion channel called TRPA1 — an infrared receptor that detects infrared radiation as heat, rather than as light, thus confirming theories of pit-organ function long held by behavioural ecologists. The receptors are also found inside the heads of mammals, where TRPA1 channels, also known as wasabi receptors, detect pungent irritants from mustard plants or other sources.
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