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Anat Rec. 1999 Jan;254(1):107-15.

Microvasculature of crotaline snake pit organs: possible function as a heat exchange mechanism.

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Department of Anatomy, Yokohama City University School of Medicine, Yokohama, Japan.


The infrared sensory membranes of the pit organs of pit vipers have an extremely rich capillary vasculature, which has been noted passim in the literature, but never illustrated or studied in detail. We rendered the pit vasculature visible in various ways, namely, by microinjection of India ink, by a combination of ink and succinate dehydrogenase staining, and by making resin casts for scanning electron microscope study. We also used transmission electron microscopy for identifying the types (arterioles, venules, capillaries) of blood vessels. Then we compared the pit vasculature with that of the retina and the dermis. Good visualization of the vasculature was obtained with both ink and resin injection. Arterioles, venules, and capillaries could be distinguished with all methods used. The monolayer vasculature was denser in the pit membrane than in the retina or skin. Each loop of the network enclosed a small number of infrared receptors so that all receptors were in contact with a capillary on at least one side. The forward-looking areas of the pit had a denser network than side-looking areas. Since infrared rays cause nerve impulses by raising the temperature of individual receptors, the capillary network functions not only as a supplier of energy but also as a cooling mechanism to reduce afterimages. Thus the denser network in the forward-looking areas causes these areas to be more sensitive and have better image resolution than the rest of the membrane.

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