Maybe you are interested in the relationship between squirrels and rattlesnakes. But probably not. Maybe you think the federal government should subsidize this research. But probably not.
Researchers whose salaries are paid for by the taxpayers of California are now investigating the squirrel-snake connection by means of robot squirrels.
“No,” you say. “This is just too nutty.” On the contrary, it is federally sponsored research at its finest.
Here is an article from the University of California, Davis, which gives more details. Here is the key fact for our interest as taxpayers:
Clark began collaborating with Owings and Joshi in 2007. Together, they wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to take the robosquirrel into the field. The grant was funded with $390,000 in 2010.
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Robot squirrels from the University of California, Davis, are going into rattlesnake country near San Jose, continuing a research project on the interaction between squirrels and rattlesnakes.
In the lab, robot squirrels have shown how squirrels signal to snakes with heat and tail flagging. Through field experiments, researchers from San Diego State University and UC Davis aim to learn more about rattlesnake behavior.
It’s not the only use of robots to study animal behavior at UC Davis. Terry Ord, a former postdoctoral researcher now at Harvard University, used robot lizards to study display behavior by anole lizards in the jungles of Puerto Rico. Gail Patricelli, professor of evolution and ecology, has used a camera-equipped robot sage grouse hen to study the mating behavior of these prairie birds.
The collaboration is giving biologists new tools for their work — and also helping engineers design new and better machines.
The research on the long struggle between California ground squirrels and their main predator, rattlesnakes, began at UC Davis under the leadership of psychology professor Donald Owings, an expert on animal behavior, who died in 2011.
Sanjay Joshi, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis, built the original “robosquirrels” for Owings, and is now working with Rulon Clark, assistant professor of biology at San Diego State University and an expert on snake behavior.
The research then and now centers on two squirrel behaviors in reaction to rattlesnakes: a tail flagging movement and the warming of the tail. Owings, with Professor Richard Coss and colleagues, observed that when adult squirrels detect a snake, they approach it head-first in an elongated posture, making flagging movements with their tails. Owings and Coss noticed that when confronting a rattlesnake, the squirrels also heated their tails.
Because rattlesnakes can “see” in the infrared, the researchers thought the squirrels might be sending a signal to the snakes. But, with live squirrels, there is no way to separate tail flagging from tail heating.
Enter the robots. Joshi’s engineering lab built a squirrel with a heatable tail and a tail flagging mechanism, each controlled separately.
Using the robosquirrel, Aaron Rundus, then a graduate student in Owings’ lab and now an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, showed that the snakes responded to the heat signal from the squirrel. . . .
Once the researchers have located a foraging snake, they put down some track, set up the robosquirrel and a video camera to record the scene and retreat behind a blind. The snakes seem to accept the robosquirrel as real, Clark said. One of their videos shows a snake biting the robot’s head.
Snakes will rarely strike at a flagging adult squirrel — and if they do they almost always miss, Clark said.
“Squirrels have a remarkable ability to move out of the way of an oncoming snake strike,” he said. Even adult squirrels that do not seem to be aware of a snake will often successfully dodge a strike. . . .
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