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
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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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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