Analytical methods for the geometric optics of thermal vision illustrated with four species of pitvipers

George S. Bakken, Samantha E. Colayori, Taihung Duong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

10 Scopus citations


The pitviper facial pit is a pinhole camera-like sensory organ consisting of a flask-shaped cavity divided into two chambers by a suspended membrane. Neurophysiological studies and simplified optical models suggest that facial pits detect thermal radiation and form an image that is combined with visual input in the optic tectum to form a single multispectral image. External pit anatomy varies markedly among taxonomic groups. However, optical function depends on unknown internal anatomy. Therefore, we developed methods for relating anatomy to optical performance. To illustrate, we constructed detailed anatomical models of the internal anatomy of the facial pits of four individuals of four pitviper species using X-ray tomography sections of fresh material. We used these models to define the point spread function, i.e. the distribution of radiation from a point source over the pit membrane, for each species. We then used optical physics, heat transfer physics and computational image processing to define the thermal image formed on the pit membrane for each species. Our computed pit membrane images are consistent with behavioral observations if the sensitivity of membrane receptors equals the most sensitive (ca. 0.001°C) laboratory estimates. Vignetting (variation in optical aperture size with view angle) and differences between body and environmental temperatures can create temperature variation across the membrane that greatly exceeds image temperature contrasts, potentially impairing imaging. Spread functions plotted versus source point azimuth and elevation show distinct patterns that suggest new research directions into the relationships among the optical anatomy, ecology, behavior and sensory neurophysiology of pitvipers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2621-2629
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 1 2012


  • Facial pit
  • Heat transfer
  • Image analysis
  • Loreal pit
  • Optics
  • Pitviper
  • Sensory anatomy
  • Sensory physiology
  • Snake

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology
  • Insect Science
  • Aquatic Science

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