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J Exp Biol. 2003 Aug;206(Pt 15):2539-45.

Thermoregulation is the pits: use of thermal radiation for retreat site selection by rattlesnakes.

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Department of Life Sciences, Indiana State University, 600 Chestnut Street, Terre Haute, Indiana 47809, USA.


Pitvipers (Viperidae: Crotalinae) possess unique sensory organs, the facial pits, capable of sensing subtle fluctuations in thermal radiation. Prey acquisition has long been regarded as the sole function of the facial pits. However, the ability to sense thermal radiation could also direct thermoregulatory behavior by remotely sensing nearby surface temperatures. Using a series of behavioral arenas of varying spatial complexity and ecological relevance, we surveyed the ability of the western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox to direct successful thermoregulatory movements with either functional or disabled facial pits. We found that western diamondback rattlesnakes could base thermoregulatory decisions on thermal radiation cues when their pits were functional, but not when blocked. Our results indicate that the facial pit is part of a generalized sense, and suggest thermoregulation as an alternative hypothesis to prey acquisition for the origin of facial pits.

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