ISU research featured on National Geographic TV

February 28 2007

Research at Indiana State University will be featured in a national television documentary about rattlesnakes, scheduled for broadcast this weekend on the National Geographic Channel.

The documentary, “Rattler: Behind the Fangs,” shines the spotlight on academic research involving venomous western diamondbacks and other rattlesnakes at various institutions around the country.

“The basis of the program is to highlight current research in snake biology and the folks who are developing these new ideas,” said Aaron Krochmal, a Ph.D. graduate of Indiana State who is now an assistant professor of natural sciences at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Krochmal and George Bakken, professor of ecology and organismal biology at Indiana State, are among those responsible for new ideas about snakes.

In 2004, the two discovered that facial pits, temperature-sensitive organs that give rattlesnakes and other pit vipers their name, help the cold-blooded animals regulate their body temperature by identifying cooler surroundings. Previously it was thought the pits served only to help identify predators and prey.

Their research attracted a British Broadcasting Corp. crew to the ISU campus last fall for three days of videotaping and interviews. The BBC footage is expected to be included in the National Geographic Channel program, which premieres at 10 p.m. Friday (March 2). Re-broadcasts are scheduled for 1 a.m. and noon on Saturday (March 3). The National Geographic Channel is on channel 142 on TimeWarner Cable in Terre Haute, channel 186 on Dish Network and channel 276 on DirectTV.

The facial pits “are essentially a completely new set of eyes, almost as though we went to an unknown planet and were looking at a new species that had evolved organs from scratch,” said Bakken, director of ISU’s Center for Bio-Diversity Studies.

Krochmal and Bakken continue to cooperate in their ongoing research of pit vipers. They are seeking a better understanding of just how the mysterious organs (for which the snake is named) function.

“We’ve taken field measurements on background radiation to examine profiles in the environment, in light of the shape and presumed optical and physiology properties of the facial pits, to try to get a feel for what these animals are actually seeing in an attempt to re-create their thermal vision,” Krochmal said.

“We are the first to really take a stab at quantifying what the image looks like as it first appears on the sensory organ. The images are fairly poor at the point when they enter the snake,” he said. But the vipers use neural circuits in their brains to sharpen the image, Bakken said.

“It’s the sort of thing that the FBI and CIA do when they get fuzzy pictures,” he explained. “If you know just how the picture is fuzzed up, you can use a computer to calculate out the effect of the fuzzing and come back with an approximation of the original picture.”

Different species of vipers also have different shaped pits, which may alter their detection abilities, said Samantha Colayari, an ISU master’s student in ecology and organismal biology who is involved in current research with Bakken. In a laboratory at the Indiana University School of Medicine-Terre Haute, located on the ISU campus, professor and student put slices from dead pit vipers under the microscope, and analyzed them via a computer program, also a new approach to the study of vipers and their pits.

“Before, scientists relied on rough drawings of the pit to figure out the optics of it. We are using serial sections to develop a more accurate model of the pit to figure out the optics of it,” Colayari said.

While the studies of pit vipers at Indiana State and the University of Houston-Downtown are academic, researchers in other fields may be able to use the knowledge to develop more accurate weapons for the military and refine remote-sensing devices.

Graduate research, as practiced at Indiana State, is teaching by apprenticeship, Bakken said, and he welcomes the opportunity to help teach a national audience via the National Geographic/BBC production.

“By working with the BBC, we’re engaged in education of the general public,” he said. “We can explain a little bit about how science works, a little bit about how the snakes’ organs work, and we can slip in a little bit of physics and other parts of science that many people don’t always find interesting.

“When pit vipers and humans come into contact, it is often to their mutual detriment. Our work will give wildlife managers better understanding of snake behavior, which may be useful in minimizing conflicts. Our education efforts should increase public appreciation of these fascinating but feared animals, should increase tolerance and help conservation.”

High resolution photos:

Rattlesnake
A facial pit is visible between the eye and mouth of a western diamondback rattlesnake. Research at Indiana State University focusing on how the facial pits of pit vipers function is part of a BBC/National Geographic Channel documentary entitled "Rattlers: Behind the Fangs."

Krochmal & Bakken
Aaron Krochmal (left), a Ph.D. graduate of Indiana State University, and George Bakken, professor of ecology and organismal biology at ISU, examine a western diamondback rattlesnake as a British Broadcasting Corp. crew begins setting up to videotape a segment on ongoing research involving rattlesnakes and other pit vipers.

Contact:George Bakken, professor of ecology and organismal biology and director, Center for Bio-Diversity Studies, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3042

Writer:Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743

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Story Highlights

Research at Indiana State University will be featured in a national television documentary about rattlesnakes, scheduled for broadcast this weekend on the National Geographic Channel. Research in the ISU department of ecology and organismal biology focuses on the heat-sensitive facial pits of rattlers and other pit vipers that help the cold-blooded animals find prey and regulate their body temperature.

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