Robot Squirrels Probe Rattlesnakes

UC Davis researchers seek behavior clues during confrontations.

By Jason Middleton
|  Wednesday, Apr 4, 2012  |  Updated 7:46 AM PDT
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Robot Squirrels Probe Rattlesnakes

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Robot squirrels are helping researchers study the relationship between prey and the rattlesnake.

Whether to flick the tail, or merely heat it up -- that's the robot squirrel question being answered in the hills around San Jose, Calif.

But keeping live squirrels, well, alive, in the field against rattlesnakes would be problematic. Enter: robot squirrels.

Researchers from UC Davis are trying to determine just how a squirrel reacts to its natural predator, the rattlesnake. Does it raise its tail and merely flick it around? Or does it raise it and heat it, messing with the snake's infrared capacities? Or both?

So far, scientists know that squirrels, upon detecting a rattler, "approach it head-first in an elongated posture, making flaggin movements with its tail," according to a UC Davis report.

The robosquirrel can flick its tail as well as heat it -- features controlled independently. Now the research team has determined the snakes respond to the heated tail.

"It was the first example of infrared communication in the animal world," researcher Sanjay Joshi told UC Davis.

UC Davis teamed with San Diego State University, wrote a grant, and got the National Science Foundation to provide $390,000 for the squirrel vs rattlesnake research.

Valid question: Why do the rodents approach the rodent-eaters in the first place?

They may be trying to assess the nature of the threat, one researcher offers. Sometimes snakes will leave the area after encountering a squirrel.

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