Heat in evolution's kitchen: evolutionary perspectives on the functions and origin of the facial pit of pitvipers (Viperidae: Crotalinae)

  • Krochmal A
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Pitvipers (Viperidae: Crotalinae) possess thermal radiation receptors, the facial pits, which allow them to detect modest temperature fluctuations within their environments. It was previously thought that these organs were used solely to aid in prey acquisition, but recent findings demonstrated that western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) use them to direct behavioral thermoregulation, suggesting that facial pits might be general purpose organs used to drive a suite of behaviors. To investigate this further, we conducted a phylogenetic survey of viperine thermoregulatory behavior cued by thermal radiation. We assessed this behavior in 12 pitviper species, representing key nodes in the evolution of pitvipers and a broad range of thermal environments, and a single species of true viper (Viperidae: Viperinae), a closely related subfamily of snakes that lack facial pits but possess a putative thermal radiation receptor. All pitviper species were able to rely on their facial pits to direct thermoregulatory movements, while the true viper was unable to do so. Our results suggest that thermoregulatory behavior cued by thermal radiation is a universal role of facial pits and probably represents an ancestral trait among pitvipers. Further, they establish behavioral thermoregulation as a plausible hypothesis explaining the evolutionary origin of the facial pit.

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  • A. R. Krochmal

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