Breaking News: Rattlesnakes Don't Like RoboSquirrels

To the surprise of nobody, rattlesnakes seem to have a serious dislike for robotic ground squirrels

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Breaking News: Rattlesnakes Don't Like RoboSquirrels

Animals generally tend to treat robots with either indifference or, more commonly, curiosity. After all, robots are clearly not food, and they're not usually threatening, so more often than not, animals are satisfied to just try and figure out what the heck is going on. Most of the time. Turns out, if you build a robot that's deliberately designed to provoke an animal, that works out pretty well too. Meet RoboSquirrel.

RoboSquirrel (ROBOSQUIRREL!) is as squirrely as a robot is ever likely to get. It's modeled closely (very closely) after a ground squirrel, and features a real squirrel skin, heated innards, and a heated and movable tail. RoboSquirrel even sleeps in a squirrel bedding to make it smell just like the real thing. Why go to all this trouble? Well, researchers from San Diego State University's Behavioral Ecology Lab are trying to figure how the squirrels interact with their nemesis (nemesisses? nemeses? nemesi?): rattlesnakes. Here's some, er, rather dramatic background info:

Ground squirrels and rattlesnakes have been going at it before time was time (or, nearly that long), and each has done its level best to try to out-evolve the other, resulting in a continuously changing stalemate. Since the snakes are predators, the squirrels arguably have the harder job, but they've evolved a resistance to rattlesnake venom and this cool tail-flagging behavior that might help them distract or confuse the snakes. To determine what the deal is from the perspective of the snake, RoboSquirrel gets sent in to striking range of a wild rattler, and then either does or does not flag its tail, according to Bree Putman, a member of the RoboSquirrel project who wrote about it on the Hizook blog. Watch what happens:

Is it just me, or does that snake look slightly confused at the end of the video there?

While the research is still in preliminary stages, RoboSquirrel does seem to suggest that tail-flagging has some sort of effect on the snakes, possibly discouraging them from striking. Cool stuff, and the research group is already planning for the deployment of RoboSquirrel 2.0 later this summer (maybe it's powered by nuts?), and they've got a RoboKangarooRat (!) in the works as well.

San Diego State University ] and [ Strike, Rattle, & Roll ] via [ Hizook ]

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