Pit vipers detect infrared radiation by means of temperature contrasts created on their pit organ membranes. Signals from pit organs integrate with visual signals in the optic tectum, leading to the conjecture that the facial pits operate as an extension of the visual system. Because similar mechanisms underlie thermal imaging technology, imagery from thermal cameras is often used to infer how pit vipers perceive their environment. However, pit organs lack a focusing mechanism, and biophysical models predict that pit organs should have poor spatial resolution compared with thermal imaging cameras. Nevertheless, behavioral studies occasionally suggest pits may have better resolution than predicted by biophysical models, indicating that processing in the central nervous system may improve imaging. To estimate the spatial resolution of the neural image informing behavior, we recorded snake responses evoked by targets moving across backgrounds composed of two contrasting temperatures with an average temperature equal to the target temperature. An unresolved background would appear uniform; thus, the target would be detectable only if the background pattern were resolved. Western rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) displayed no statistically significant responses to targets presented in front of patterned backgrounds, regardless of the temperature contrasts or spatial frequencies within the background, but responded strongly to targets presented in front of homogeneous backgrounds. We found no evidence that the pit organ system can resolve spatial details subtending an angle of 9 deg or less. We discuss the implications of these results for understanding pit organ function in ecologically relevant habitats with thermal heterogeneity.

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