Monday, July 15, 2019

Chemical Trails, Snakes and Agriculture

The photo is of a Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis holbrooki) taken in one of our pastures a few years ago.  Most people have a strong aversion to snakes.  Their immediate reaction is to kill them without thought about how they are often beneficial.  The Speckled Kingsnake is known for killing and feeding on other snakes and their eggs.  They are best known for attacking and eating Rattlesnakes.

After the posts of the last few days, I thought snakes would be a great followup, since I have been talking about chemical signals in nature.  Snakes tongues are used to gather chemical signals from the air around them.  They flick in-and-out gathering air samples which are laden with the chemical trails of plants and animals in the vicinity.  The chemicals are deposited onto the floor of the mouth.  From there they are sensed by the Jacobson's Organ in the roof of the mouth which converts the different chemicals into electrical signals that are then transmitted to the brain.  Those signals identify the source of the chemicals and allow the snake to follow them to prey, or to avoid things such as humans.

The fact that the snake's tongue is forked is important.  Each of the tips gathers chemicals from the air and deposits them in separate areas of the mouth.  By quantifying the amount of chemical sampled by each tip, the snake can determine direction of the source of the signal based on which tip carried the greater or, lesser amount.  It allows them to zero in quickly on their target.

Chemical processes -- reactions -- cause electrons to move.  The movement of electrons is what we call electricity.  Nature uses electrochemistry continuously as a means of communicating various signals and processes from one point to another.

As technology allows us to become better at sensing the chemical and electrical processes occurring constantly in nature, we will be able to target areas needing fertilizer, or water, or help fighting insect, bacterial, or fungal infection with very high specificity.  Imagine a "mechanical" snake wandering through the field of ripening tomatoes.  It's "tongue" is flicking in-and-out, sampling the air when suddenly it detects an early infection of tomato blight in a few plants.  It converts those signals into an electrical impulse which informs its "brain" of the problem which it then relays to a computer designed to monitor for such alarms.  The computer then dispatches a robot to the area where it scans the diseased plants and is able to either remove the few infected leaves, or take more drastic action depending on a set of decision parameters programmed into it.

Science is kind of cool if you ask me....

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