You wouldn’t think a rattlesnake would be afraid of a squirrel and you’d be right — that is, unless the squirrel in question was wagging its tail. That’s what a joint research project between the University of California-Davis and San Diego State University found with the help of their friend Robosquirrel.
Okay, so Robosquirrel is no rodent version of the Six Million Dollar Man. Its powers consist of moving its tail, having a heat signature thanks to copper wiring and smelling like it’s alive thanks to a stint living with real squirrels.
Robosquirrel’s mission? To provide researcher Rulon Clark and his team insight on “natural anti-predator signaling interactions and predator responses.”
In places like the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve — located near San Jose, Calif. — interactions between Calif. ground squirrels and northern Pacific rattlesnakes are common. Catching an interaction between the two, however, is difficult, not to mention that if researchers do witness one, they can’t exactly tell the squirrel what to do.
So they rolled out their ersatz squirrel in two scenarios. In the first, the squirrel performed its “don’t mess with me” tail-wagging motion. It worked; the coiled snake watched but didn’t make a move.
In the second scenario, the squirrel crept up casually without moving its tail. The rattlesnake then proceeded to bite it in the face which, in slow motion, is terrifying.
California ground squirrels actually have a level of resistance against rattlesnake venom, but still, nobody wants to get bitten in the face. The lesson? Carry around a fake tail everywhere you go to avoid rattlesnake attacks.