Rolling snake eyes: Sharri Zamore seeks to chart the limits of reptile sight

February 6th, 2017

When Sharri Zamore rides her bike, she sometimes wears an unusual scarf. Wrapped snugly around her neck, it literally has a mind of its own. When she stops to talk to people, the scarf may give them a bit of a start. Peeking out of her jacket is not woven yarn, but a ball python.

It’s a great icebreaker to talk about the research she does with snakes. Zamore has two pet snakes, a ball python and a very young boa constrictor.

Legless, slithering reptiles have been a big part of Zamore’s life. Having once considered becoming a veterinarian, she found a much better fit in research. Her “honed curiosity” for animal perception inspired the pursuit of a doctorate in neurobiology and behavior from the University of Washington, where her dissertation was focused on mosquitos’ use of heat sensing to find their way around. She had often relayed to her advisor at the University of Washington that her real interest was with snakes.

Her advisor directed her to a poster presented by Jake Socha’s research group at a conference for the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology, and Zamore was immediately hooked. She was still working on her doctorate at the time, but stayed focused on Socha’s group for her post-doctoral work. Socha’s work with gliding snakes was a perfect fit for both her past studies and her future interests. An NSF postdoctoral research fellowship in biology put the funding into place, and Zamore packed her snakes and headed to Blacksburg.

Jake Socha’s lab is well-known for research on the aerial capabilities of snakes. Some species are able to flatten out their bodies to achieve gliding over short distances, and Zamore’s interest in animal perception led her to study the way snakes see, and the rate at which they are able to process their visual environment and respond.

How do you find out how a snake can see? You put it inside a spinning drum.

To find out how fast snakes process their visual environment, Zamore designed a drum with a vertical repeating pattern of lines. The drum spins, and the snake responds by moving its head to follow the motion as the lines move past. When the drum reaches a speed at which the pattern is no longer visible, the snake stops moving its head to follow. This is the point where a threshold of the snake’s ability to process is defined.

What do spinning lines have to do with real-world motion? It’s all about image processing. Videos seen by the human eye passes at a rate of 24-60 frames per second, and is seen as continuous motion. For a snake, this is much higher. Zamore has maxed out her equipment at a rate equivalent to more than 100 frames per second and still hasn’t hit their threshold.

The next step, according to Zamore, is engineering snake-centric virtual reality, allowing more precise measurement of reptile perception.


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