Robosquirrel To Study Animal's Encounters With Rattlesnakes
April 5, 2012

Robosquirrel To Study Animal’s Encounters With Rattlesnakes

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Researchers in California have developed robotic squirrels that are being deployed in rattlesnake country in order to learn more about the serpents' behavior and how the two species interact with one-another.

According to Matthew Knight of CNN, the robots, which were built by a team of experts working out of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), are able to replicate two moves typically displayed by their real-life counterparts when they come face-to-face with their primary predators: their tails heat up, and they make a flagging movement with them.

The mechanical rodents were sent to San Jose, where Daily Mail reporter Rob Waugh said they will be tasked with getting bit by one of the rattlesnakes in the hopes that the project will help provide insight as to exactly why a squirrel's tail does heat up when confronted with these reptilian aggressors.

The UC Davis researchers explained further in a Tuesday press release that the heating-up of the tail can be detected by the snake's infrared vision, which the scientists believe could be acting as a signal to the snakes. Since naturally it is impossible to separate the flagging movement from the heating of the tail, the research team developed the robotic squirrel in order to control each of the responses individually.

The experiment began under the tutelage of the late psychology professor and animal behavior expert Donald Owings, who passed away last year. Using the robosquirrel, former UC Davis graduate student and current West Chester University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Aaron Rundus determined that the snakes do, in fact, respond to the heat signal given off from the tail.

Sanjay Joshi, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis and the creator of the original robosquirrels, called Rundus's discovery "the first example of infrared communication in the animal world" when it was originally published back in 2008.

During their fieldwork, Waugh said that the UC Davis team would first locate a foraging snake, and then prepare both the robotic squirrel and a video camera before finally heading for a blind to allow the situation to play out. The snakes appeared unable to tell the difference between the fake squirrel and a real one, as one of the videos even showed one of the serpents biting the head of the robotic unit, the Daily Mail said.

According to Rulon Clark, assistant professor of biology at San Diego State University (SDSU) and an expert on snake behavior, the reptiles rarely attempt to attack a squirrel in this way, and even if they do, the squirrel is usually dexterous enough to dodge the forthcoming strike.

In fact, Clark said that the animals possess "a remarkable ability" to move out of the way when a snake it lunging for them, though he notes in the university's press release that pups are more vulnerable as they are less resistant to rattlesnake venom and tend to behave more recklessly.

"Although not much is known about the mental abilities of rattlesnakes -- they are not ideal lab animals, after all -- they do behave in the field as if they are making complicated assessments about foraging behavior, Clark said. For example, they react differently to adult squirrels versus pups," the UC-Davis statement said. "Why do squirrels approach the snakes at all? Clark says that they may be trying to assess the nature of the threat. Sometimes snakes will leave the area after encounters with squirrels."

Sadly, at this point it does not look like the unit will ever be commercially available, and there appear to be no plans for any optional laser-cannon attachments.