Recent work published in the accompanying paper used a combination of 3D morphological reconstruction to define optical spread functions and heat transfer physics to study how external heat energy would reach the sensory membrane within the facial pit of pitvipers. The results from all of the species examined indicated asymmetric directional sensitivity, e.g. the pit would preferentially respond to stimuli located below and behind the snake. The present study was intended as a test of these findings through a quantitative neurophysiological analysis of directional sensitivity in the facial pit of the western diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. An infrared emitter was positioned through a coordinate system (with varying angular orientations and distances) and the response it evoked measured through neurophysiological recordings of a trigeminal nerve branch composed of the afferents from the sensory membrane of the facial pit. Significant differences were found in the strength of the membrane's neural response to a constant stimulus presented at different orientations (relative to the facial pit opening) and over different distances. The peak sensitivity (at 12 deg above and 20 deg in front of the facial pit opening) was in good agreement with the predicted directional sensitivities based on optical spread functions and 3D topography. These findings support the hypothesis that the topography, and functional performance, of the facial pit has undergone an adaptive radiation within the pit vipers, and that differences in the behavioral ecology of the pit vipers (i.e. terrestrial versus arboreal) are reflected within the facial pits.
This research was supported by grants awarded from the German Science Foundation [grant no. BL 242/15-1] and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research [grant no. 01 RB 0812B] to Horst Bleckmann.
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