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Zoology: ‘Super-black’ colouring makes the Gaboon viper a master of disguise

Scientific Reports

May 16, 2013

The specific surface micro- and nanostructures that give the black scales of the West African Gaboon viper their ‘super-black’ appearance are described in a study published in Scientific Reports this week.

The West African Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros) is the largest of the African vipers. Its geometrically patterned skin features provide an exceptional spatial depth due to their velvety surface texture. Marlene Spinner and colleagues use scanning electron microscopy to examine the morphology and spectroscopy to estimate the optical properties of the Gaboon viper’s dorsal skin. The study reveals an unusual hierarchical pattern of leaf-life microstructures, striped with nanoridges, which coincide with the distribution of black colouration. The velvet black sites show a much lower reflectance and much higher absorbance than other scales in the UV-near infrared spectral range.

This high-contrast, geometrical colouration pattern conceals the snake’s body contours, making it hard to detect on the floor of the rainforest where it makes its home. The camouflage is important for the snake’s hunting, as well as avoiding predation by other animals.

doi: 10.1038/srep01846

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