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Snakes control blood flow to aid vision

Friday, November 1, 2013

coachwhip snake

The eye of a coachwhip snake (photo: Kevin van Doorn)

WATERLOO, Ont. (Friday, November 1, 2013) — A new study from the University of Waterloo shows that snakes can optimize their vision by controlling the blood flow in their eyes when they perceive a threat.

Kevin van Doorn, PhD, and Professor Jacob Sivak, from the Faculty of Science, discovered that the coachwhip snake’s visual blood flow patterns change depending on what’s in its environment. The findings appear in the most recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

“Each species' perception of the world is unique due to differences in sensory systems,” said van Doorn, from the School of Optometry & Vision Science.

Instead of eyelids, snakes have a clear scale called a spectacle. It works like a window, covering and protecting their eyes. Spectacles are the result of eyelids that fuse together and become transparent during embryonic development.

When van Doorn was examining a different part of the eye, the illumination from his instrument detected something unusual.

Surprisingly, these spectacles contained a network of blood vessels, much like a blind on a window. To see if this feature obscured the snake’s vision, van Doorn examined if the pattern of blood flow changed under different conditions.

When the snake was resting, the blood vessels in the spectacle constricted and dilated in a regular cycle. This rhythmic pattern repeated several times over the span of several minutes. 

But when researchers presented the snake with stimuli it perceived as threatening, the fight-or-flight response changed the spectacle’s blood flow pattern. The blood vessel constricted, reducing blood flow for longer periods than at rest, up to several minutes. The absence of blood cells within the vasculature guarantees the best possible visual capacity in times of greatest need.

“This work shows that the blood flow pattern in the snake spectacle is not static but rather dynamic,” said van Doorn.

Next, the research team examined the blood flow pattern of the snake spectacle when the snake shed its skin. They found a third pattern.  During this time, the vessels remained dilated and the blood flow stayed strong and continuous, unlike the cyclical pattern seen during resting.

Together, these experiments show the relationship between environmental stimuli and vision, as well as highlight the interesting and complex effect blood flow patterns have on visual clarity. Future research will investigate the mechanism underlying this relationship.

“This research is the perfect example of how a fortuitous discovery can redefine our understanding of the world around us,” said van Doorn.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada supported this project.

About the University of Waterloo

In just half a century, the University of Waterloo, located at the heart of Canada's technology hub, has become one of Canada's leading comprehensive universities with 35,000 full- and part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Waterloo, as home to the world's largest post-secondary co-operative education program, embraces its connections to the world and encourages enterprising partnerships in learning, research and discovery. In the next decade, the university is committed to building a better future for Canada and the world by championing innovation and collaboration to create solutions relevant to the needs of today and tomorrow. For more information about Waterloo, visit www.uwaterloo.ca.

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Media Contact:

Pamela Smyth
University of Waterloo
519-888-4777
psmyth@uwaterloo.ca
www.uwaterloo.ca/news
@uWaterlooNews

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