Velvet black viper revealed in reports in Wired Science 16 May 2013, ABC News in Science 17 May 2013 and Nature Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/srep01846 16 May 2013.

The West African Gaboon viper, Bitis rhinoceros, has a distinctive geometrical pattern of black, brown and white patches on its skin. The black patches are a particularly dense black, sometimes called ultra-black or velvet black, which means the shape of the snake is lost to view amongst the shadows and dappled light as it lies in the leaf litter on the forest floor. As such, the snake is considered to be “a master of disguise among snakes” well designed for ambushing prey, and avoiding being eaten by anything else. A team of German scientists have examined the snake’s skin scales under a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and compared the structure of the black regions and lighter regions to find the secret of the ultra-dense blackness.

They found “a unique hierarchical pattern of leaf-like microstructures striated with nanoridges on the snake scales that coincides with the distribution of black colouration”. This “micro-ornamentation” was not found in the lighter patches of skin, indicating the darkness was not just from black pigment. They also recorded temperature of the skin after being exposed to light and found the black regions were warmer. The scientists suggest the complex texture helps guide sunlight deep into the scale where dark pigment absorbs it.

According to Wired Science the findings of this study “could help engineers design ultra-black artificial materials, useful in a variety of capacities from military camouflage to solar heat collectors”. The research team commented in their report: “The micro-ornamentation on the snake’s velvet black scales is a further example that the same physical law applies to both nature and technology and leads consequently to similar constructions”.

ABC, Wired Science

Editorial Comment: We are often asked why would God create animals with camouflage if they were meant to live in a very good world without death and predation. The potential application of this snake’s “micro-ornamentation” in the design of solar heat collectors gives us a clue. Cold blooded animals, such as reptiles, use solar energy to warm themselves, and other studies of reptile pigment have shown that dark skin pigment is used in thermoregulation.

Thermoregulation is a useful function in a very good world, and it seems this snake has very good solar collectors. After the world ceased to be very good, and the snake had enemies that would kill it, then the densely black pattern proved to be a useful attribute for survival on a forest floor, but that does not explain how the complex surface features that give the deep black colour, came into existence.

The researchers’ comment about the same physical laws applying to “both nature and technology” hints at what is needed for such a complex structure to come into existence. Technology is the process of applying the laws of physics and chemistry to get a desired outcome, and it only happens when creative design is used by an outside intelligence, who is not part of matter and energy being manipulated. Physical laws alone will not result in producing any solar heat collecting technology, and it is just as foolish to believe that physical laws alone produced the particularly high-tech solar heat collectors in this snake’s black patches.

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