Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Introducing RoboSquirrel

Meet RoboSquirrel...

He(?) is a robotic California ground squirrel. His skin is a real squirrel skin, and when he is not working, he is kept in an actual captive squirrel nest so that he will have the scent of a real squirrel.

RoboSquirrel was developed as part of a joint project by the Behavioral Ecology Lab at San Diego State University and the Robotics Engineering Lab at the University of California at Davis. His job is to help researchers study the predator-prey interactions between California ground squirrels and rattlesnakes.

Ground squirrels and rattlesnakes have lived in close proximity for thousands of years in California. Scientists have known for years about certain adaptations that the squirrels have evolved to help them avoid becoming snake food. They have developed a moderate degree of resistance to snake venom, so that they can often survive being bitten. They also have developed what may seem like an odd behavior: when it detects a rattlesnake in its vicinity, a squirrel does not flee but instead confronts the snake face-to-face and waves its tail back and forth, a behavior known as tail flagging. Here is a video to demonstrate:

When a squirrel engages in tail flagging, it also heats up its tail--I'm not sure how this is done, but I assume it somehow increases the blood flow to the tail.

What scientists don't understand is how tail flagging helps the squirrel avoid being bitten by a rattlesnake. RoboSquirrel will help scientists study how this behavior works, without exposing real squirrels to danger. After identifying a real rattlesnake in the field of vision of a remote control camera, they can send in RoboSquirrel to confront the snake. They can program the robot to either flag its tail, or to face the snake without tail flagging (something a real ground squirrel would never do) and compare the results. They can also change the rate of tail flagging.

Here is a video of one of the very early experiments with RoboSquirrel:

You can read more about this fascinating work at the robotics blog Hizook, and also at the rattlesnake behavior blog Strike, Rattle, & Roll, which promises to give updates on the project in the future.

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