By Wendy Langhans
A dab of that green paste, smooshed with a dollop of soy sauce. Put too much on a tuna roll and it will bring tears to your eyes. That's because mustard oil, the pungent ingredient found in mustard, garlic and Wasabi , activates our TRPA1 pain receptor. But that's not all the TRPA1 does. Recently, scientists have discovered another purpose for this protein receptor. It also allows Western Diamondback rattlesnakes to detect infared radiation .
Western Diamondback rattlesnakes are part of the sub-family of snakes known as pit vipers. Rattlesnakes have a pair of "pit organs" that detect temperature differences between the snake and it's surrounding environment. The pit openings are located on each side of the head, between the eye and the nostril. At the back of each pit is a membrane that is packed with 6-7,000 sensory nerves, which allows the snake to detect temperature changes of as little as 0.003°C and over a distance of 1 meter.
This ability is useful, especially at night, when the snake is hunting for warm-blooded prey, since "...typical prey , such as mice and rabbits, have a surface temperature of about 25 degrees C and emit body heat at wavelengths under 75 micrometers, in the infrared range."
Now scientists at UCSF have discovered the bio-chemical mechanism - a protein receptor that detects the heat energy from infared radiation. It's the wasabi-detecting protein, known as TRPA1.
Now that got me to thinking (always a dangerous undertaking). While I appreciate that rattlesnakes play an important role in keeping the rodent population in check, I'm not fond of them hanging around my backyard. Would growing wasabi plants in my garden keep the snakes out? So I looked up wasabi  (wasabia japonica) - and found it requires a cool, shady and humid climate - something we're not going to find in my neighborhood. But what if I sprayed a solution of mustard oil around the perimeter of our yard. Would that do the trick? I don't know, but when was the last time I saw a rattlesnake hanging around a sushi restaurant?
Upcoming Outdoor Events:
For Facebook Users: 90 Days of Santa Clarita Valley Wildflowers.
Here's a new way to familiarize yourself with our local wildflowers. Become a fan of the page, "90 Days of Santa Clarita Valley Wildflowers" and from now through April, each day you'll receive a photo of a local wildflower and a link to a website where you can learn more.
Saturday, March 20, 8-10 AM. Early morning bird hike at Towsley Canyon. March is a special time to glimpse unique migratory birds as they travel North. Enjoy another wonderful walk with our in-house birder, Volunteer Naturalist Roger. Beginners are welcome. Bring binoculars. Heavy rains cancel. For map, click here .
Saturday, March 27, 1-3 PM. Wildflowers Galore at Towsley Canyon. It's that time of year! Join Wendy on a hunt for the colorful wildflowers. Heavy rains cancel. For map, click here .
You can listen to stories like this every Friday morning at 7:10 a.m. on "The Hike Report", brought to you by your hometown radio station KHTS (AM1220) and by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.