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Robot squirrels hit the field, helping scientists study squirrel behavior

Robot squirrels hit the field, helping scientists study squirrel behavior

Posting in Science

For the first time since their invention, robot squirrels are taking to the field to encounter real rattlesnakes.

Squirrels do two strange things with their tails when they see a rattlesnake: they heat them up, and they wave them. For a long time, scientists had no way to distinguish the functional difference between these two behaviors. That's where robo-squirrel come in, who's tail can be heated and waved independently.

The really interesting breakthrough with the robot squirrel came in 2007, when researchers used it in a lab setting to demonstrate that when the squirrel was heating its tail, it was really signaling the rattlesnake, who can see infrared light. The idea is that the rattlesnakes hone in on the tail rather than the body of the squirrel and attack the waving lure. This was the first known infrared communication between animals. Now, the furry robot is hitting the dirt, making its first trip outside the laboratory.

Of course, field work has challenges all its own. Researchers have to find rattlesnakes, and then build a track for the robo-squirrel to follow towards them. The researchers also only have a few short weeks during which rattlesnakes hunt squirrels - the same time squirrel pups are born.

The robo-squirrel joins the ranks of wacky robot animals out there in the name of science. “The reason I’m so excited is that with robots we can really change how animal behavior studies are done,” researcher Sanjay Joshi said in the press release.

Via: Futurity

Image and Video Via: UC Davis

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure