G. Westhoff/U. Bonn; (inset) Graduiertenkolleg Bionik

ScienceShot: The Secret of a Viper's Velvet Black Camouflage

Hiding in the rainforest, the West African Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros) waits for hours until a bird or mammal wanders by at dusk. The snake strikes suddenly and injects venom into its prey. The ambush is aided by camouflaged skin with black spots that disappear in the dappled shadows of the forest floor (main image). Now, researchers have discovered the molecular structure of this velvet black, unlike any other known in the animal kingdom. Using a scanning electron microscope, scientists described a pattern of 30-micron-tall towers streaked with branched ridges (inset). Optical tests showed that these structures on average reflect less than 11% of light, compared with 27% of the snakes' other colors. And they keep this jet-black appearance when viewed from any angle. The researchers suggest in this month's issue of Scientific Reports that these structures might provide inspiration for engineers to improve devices designed to absorb light, such as solar panels that collect heat.

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