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Robotic Squirrels Battle It Out With Rattlesnakes

samzenpus posted more than 2 years ago | from the I-for-one-welcome-our-new-metal-sciuridae-overlords dept.

Robotics 125

Hugh Pickens writes "Alasdair Wilkins writes that when a squirrel encounters a rattlesnake in the wild, it does something very peculiar to survive its brush with the predator — something is so peculiar that scientists are building robotic squirrels just to try to understand the behavior. A live squirrel does two things when it sees a rattlesnake. It starts moving its tail in a flagging motion and actually heats up the temperature of its tail. Because rattlesnakes can see in the infrared wavelengths, they should be able to see both the tail move and heat up. The question is which of these two signals is important and just what message it's supposed to send to the rattlesnake. To that end, engineers at UC Davis have built robosquirrels, which allow the biologists to simulate the two squirrel behaviors one a time and the research so far suggests it's the heated tail, not the flagging motion, that the snake responds to, making it one of the first known examples of infrared communication between two distinct species. 'Snakes will rarely strike at a flagging adult squirrel — and if they do they almost always miss,' says Rulon Clark, assistant professor of biology at San Diego State University and an expert on snake behavior. 'In some cases, it seems the rattlesnakes just decide it's best to cut their losses after dealing with these confusing critters,' adds Wilkins, 'as sometimes the snakes just leave the area completely after encountering these flagging, tail-heating squirrels.'"

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Squirrelzilla (5, Funny)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582219)

Perhaps these robocritters can deal with the plague of our snake-in-the-grass politicians.

I, for one, welcome our new hot tailed rodent overlords.

Re:Squirrelzilla (1)

Theophany (2519296) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582353)

I can see a movie starring the likes of Steven Seagal/Bruce Willis/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger being pitched to Hollywood execs right now.

God damn you, Michael Bay.

Re:Squirrelzilla (1)

geekmux (1040042) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583557)

I can see a movie starring the likes of Steven Seagal/Bruce Willis/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger being pitched to Hollywood execs right now...

(overheard near Sly Stallone talking to someone on his cell phone)...

"What?!? What do you mean the script was leaked for Expendables 3?!? How the fuck do they know about the robot squirrels!?! Dammit, heads are gonna roll!"

Re:Squirrelzilla (1)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583567)

...starring the likes of Steven Seagal/Bruce Willis/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger

Geriatric brigade vs. Squirrels? My money is on the tree rats.

Re:Squirrelzilla (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583575)

Maybe we should all start flagging our tails at politicians.

Re:Squirrelzilla (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39584373)

We have to get rid of those tree rats!
I for one, welcome our new tail rattling overlords.

Isn't it obvious? (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582221)

The question is which of these two signals is important and just what message it's supposed to send to the rattlesnake.

The most important message: Dinner is served!

Re:Isn't it obvious? (5, Funny)

azalin (67640) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582381)

Actually it's more like "This is not the droid you are looking for" as the action reduces the chance of getting eaten greatly.

Rattlesnake... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582225)

You just got Punk'd!

Natasha thinks... (4, Funny)

terminalhype (971547) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582231)

They also need to make a moose...

Re:Natasha thinks... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583051)

...and make the squirrel fly!

And I for one.. (0)

stuffeh (1108283) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582243)

...welcome our flagging and/xor tail-heating robo squirrel overlords.

Sorry, it had to be said.

I guess two reasons ... (5, Interesting)

nooneelsesname (2368368) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582253)

... the tail wagging evolved to attract strikes from snake species that target movement, while the "heating tail" evolved to attract strikes from species that target heat (like rattlers). Maybe in the daylight it will be the wagging that saves the squirrel. Perhaps, if the waggging has no effect on squirrel survival, it's a leftover from an earlier evolutionary stage, where the snakes didn't have the infrared targetting capability.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582267)

Or it could be that the tail wagging helps get the blood flowing through the tail and causes the tail muscles to generate heat through use...

Re:I guess two reasons ... (5, Informative)

Captain Hook (923766) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582395)

The article also said that the snake almost never struck at the flagging tail and if it did it normally misses.

That suggests the tail is being heated up to make it a more inviting target and the movement is there to ensure that the snake never get a chance to actually strike (which presumably would still kill the squirrel unless it can cast off the tail/shutdown all blood flow before the poison makes its way into the core organs). I assume the tail can be moved far more quickly and erratically than the squirrels main body mass.

It sounds to me more like a matador using a cloak as a target for the bull. Something to draw the attention in a way which encourages an attack (or at least preparation for an attack) at the point which has least chance of causing damage.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (5, Interesting)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582511)

Well you have to figure in the fluff of the tail which means most strikes unless the snake hits dead solid perfect all he is gonna get is a mouth full of fur. if you have ever seen a squirrel's tail up close it really is just this little thin string, much like a rat's tail, and it only looks big because of the way the fur poofs out.

So it makes sense, give the snake a fast moving target that severely cuts down his chances of actually getting a strike and of course once it has struck the squirrel has time to scamper off. Just another case of the classic predator and prey evolution at work.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (2)

TheCarp (96830) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582909)

Thats what I was thinking. Also.... what kind of a bite is it going to get on a tail? Tails are bony and thin. A good strike might break the tail right off.... and if it didn't, there just isn't much space to leave poison in.

In fact, some poisonous snakes have been shown to not use their fangs in some situations, like defensive striking. The studies I have seen in the past theorised that the snake was protecting its fangs. Think what could happen if they got a good chomp, sinking their fangs straight on into the front of your shin. Sure, they will pierce a little skin and leave some poison....but they are also going to hit bone very quickly, which could break them.

So the tail is bony, small, in a "cloud" of fur, not really needed, even if useful... sounds like a good fake target to me.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (3, Interesting)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583497)

You've obviously never been bitten by a snake. They are real pussies. There isn't much force to the bite and their fangs (most of them) are like hollow tubes. I emerged from my apartment one day (some years ago) to find that my neighbor (a real brainiac) had a large brown snake pinned down under his foot. The head and about 8inches was loose and in full honey badger mode--it was pissed. Nonetheless, I decided it might be a good idea to grab the head of the snake whilst he had it pinned down. Of course, it struck at me in an attempt to sink its fangs into the plump part of my hand between the index finger and thumb (bible bump?). Upon screaming like a little girl, and yanking my hand away at lightning speed, the snake's fangs broke off after having penetrated my skin ever so slightly. I learned several things from that incident.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583795)

> I learned several things from that incident.

1. don't grab snake with bare hands?
2. don't denigrate your neighbor who was smart enough not to try to grab snake with bare hands?
3. ?

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

vonhammer (992352) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585415)

Hmm, I'm guessing:

3. Always scream like a girl when something bites your bible bump.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

hierophanta (1345511) | more than 2 years ago | (#39587093)

how did he denigrate his neighbor? - being a brainiac is a good thing, no? I didnt take it as sarcastic because the point of the post was to denigrate the author (humorously)

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

fredrated (639554) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583831)

Except that the heat, which a rattlesnake perceives, would not be in the fluff but in the body of the tail.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

TubeSteak (669689) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585421)

That suggests the tail is being heated up to make it a more inviting target and the movement is there to ensure that the snake never get a chance to actually strike (which presumably would still kill the squirrel unless it can cast off the tail/shutdown all blood flow before the poison makes its way into the core organs).

Most animals have a much higher tolerance (by bodyweight) for venom than us puny humans do.
The really interesting thing is that studies show this tolerance varies between populations of the same animal.
Squirrels that live in poisonous snake country are naturally selected for tolerance.

Other animals (like badgers or humans) can gain tolerance over time as a result of repeated exposure to venom.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39587157)

"Other animals (like badgers or humans) can gain tolerance over time as a result of repeated exposure to venom."

Otherwise known as Mithradatism.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582405)

Yep, a countermeasure. Obviously squirrels couldn't evolve an IR flare dispenser, so this is the next best thing.

Not much to a squirrel's tail other than fluff to bite on anyways, so the odds of the snake striking anything vital are pretty slim.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585533)

Indeed. I wouldn't call this a communication method, but an active defense measure. If you insist on calling this a form of communication, then I suggest "biting" and such be as well.

Re:I guess two reasons ... (1)

Eponymous Hero (2090636) | more than 2 years ago | (#39586415)

ever heard of body language?

Its not a message, its a decoy (4, Interesting)

perpenso (1613749) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582257)

A live squirrel does two things when it sees a rattlesnake. It starts moving its tail in a flagging motion and actually heats up the temperature of its tail. Because rattlesnakes can see in the infrared wavelengths, they should be able to see both the tail move and heat up. The question is which of these two signals is important and just what message it's supposed to send to the rattlesnake.

Its not sending a messages. Its presenting a decoy target.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582361)

A live squirrel does two things when it sees a rattlesnake. It starts moving its tail in a flagging motion and actually heats up the temperature of its tail. Because rattlesnakes can see in the infrared wavelengths, they should be able to see both the tail move and heat up. The question is which of these two signals is important and just what message it's supposed to send to the rattlesnake.

Its not sending a messages. Its presenting a decoy target.

It is a secret message, you're supposed to decode it with the a snake decoder ring. I used my pet snake's ring and it says: Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (2, Funny)

MisterMidi (1119653) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582579)

If you accidentally use your pet cock's ring, it says: Warning, furry beaver.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (4, Funny)

Mr. Underbridge (666784) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582363)

Its not sending a messages. Its presenting a decoy target.

The message is "Look, over here! No, over here! Hah, made you miss! You suck! That's right, slither away with your tail between your legs! Hahahaha, you don't have legs! Loser!"

It's just that at normal speed instead of squirrel speed, you can't hear the trash talk that accompanies the flagging.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

inhuman_4 (1294516) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583055)

Its not sending a messages. Its presenting a decoy target.

The message is "Look, over here! No, over here! Hah, made you miss! You suck! That's right, slither away with your tail between your legs! Hahahaha, you don't have legs! Loser!"

It's just that at normal speed instead of squirrel speed, you can't hear the trash talk that accompanies the flagging.

So squirrels are the world's first trolls? I can dig it

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583105)

Trolls are the world's first trolls. Haven't you see the movie? [imdb.com]

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583529)

I think you just wrote a Randall script. Good job.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583053)

Predator/prey relationships are fascinating biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, optics, acoustics, and many soft and hard sciences in the mix. Add the drama and sex inherent to the systems, and you have a recipe for endless fun and entertainment. A lot applies to human relationshps, too.

Check out Wolfgang Wickler's "mimicry" book for a lot of fascinating study and beautiful illustrations to learn a lot about the the biological world and even some lessons about human mating. The idea that a deadlier poisonous species may actually be mimicking a *less* deadly species was.... enlightening.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583447)

Its not sending a messages. Its presenting a decoy target.

It's not necessarily an either/or. The article (and even the summary) mentions that snakes often don't strike at the squirrel at all, as opposed to striking at the decoy and missing. That implies that the decoy behavior is sending a message along the lines of "Attacking me isn't worth the trouble."

Or you can look at it another way: Pretend there's a species that's vaguely squirrel like but instead has large, fleshy tails. Using that as a decoy wouldn't work very well since it wouldn't give the snake a mouth full of empty fur like a squirrel's tail does. But now imagine that species evolves a similar tail heating signaling mechanism -- snakes might bothering even though this new species presents a viable target. It would be similar to how non-poisonous animals mimic the coloration of poisonous ones to ward off predators.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

RNLockwood (224353) | more than 2 years ago | (#39584267)

It may be a little more complicated. Many years ago in a wildland area in southern California I came on half a dozen or so ground squirrels who had discovered a rattlesnake and were driving it from their feeding area. The snake would attempt to move away and then two or three of the smaller squirrels would dash up and nip it (counting coup, I guess). The snake would then whip around and attempt a short strike that would miss, coil, wait a bit and then attempt to flee again. This repeated itself for some time. I quit watching when the snake moved into cover. This was in full daylight, the squirrels were wild but they didn't pay much attention to me. So I'd guess that there is a social aspect, the squirrels probably vocalized the discovery of the snake and the tail twitching could be doing double duty signaling that the snake was still around. Since this was daylight the snake could see the squirrels with its eyes, too, and the total appearance might have suggested that the squirrels were larger and thus more dangerous or less suited for a meal than they actually were. So I would say that ground squirrels in southern California do a third thing: alert their nearby kin and neighbors.

The behavior reminded me of hummingbirds mobbing mocking birds, mocking birds mobbing crows, and crows mobbing hawks.

If a hawk had been around it would have had to make an agonizing decision of what to have for lunch - snake or squirrel.

Re:Its not a message, its a decoy (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585611)

Usually a snake's vision is really only adequate to detect motion - so the higher temperature spoofs the thermal detection, and the shaking spoofs the visual. I'd say it's more that than anything else - squirrels aren't exactly mute and do a good job of shouting out about danger... so the use of the tail to signal would be secondary if anything.

WTFBBQ (2)

MiG82au (2594721) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582277)

This is one of the strangest things I've seen on Slashdot. Heated tail countermeasure causes snakes to give up. W T F.

Re:WTFBBQ (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582971)

This is one of the strangest things I've seen on Slashdot. Heated tail countermeasure causes snakes to give up. W T F.

But ... robot heated tail countermeasures ...

It makes more sense if you’ve overheard, as I have, the rattlesnakes commenting on the phenomenon: “The 600-series had rubber skin. We spotted them easy, but these are new. They look squirrelly ... heated, flagging tail, everything. Very hard to spot.”

Re:WTFBBQ (3, Funny)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583665)

I think the main point of the article is robots are cool.

Re:WTFBBQ (2)

camperdave (969942) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583877)

I think the main point of the article is robots are cool.

... except the tail part.

Re:WTFBBQ (1)

Cragen (697038) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585021)

BAH-ha-ha! Thank you.

easy (5, Interesting)

dutchwhizzman (817898) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582355)

I have had pet snakes for the last 10 years of various species, some with IR receptors.

Big warmed things tend to trigger the "too big to eat" response in snakes. That is, as long as they are moving. Stationary dead but still warm prey, may be looked upon as "luck, I found myself a free meal".

Most poisonous snakes tend to either not inject venom at all, or tone down the dose considerably when attacking as a defensive movement. Hence, even if the snake seems to miss, it might actually have hit and bitten, but no big damage is done. Making yourself too big to eat is an advantage even if it comes to a fight for the squirrel. For the snake, it makes no sense to waste valuable poison on something you can't eat, so just a warning dose will be more economical.

The squirrel can counter-attack and bite the snake behind the head if it attacks the big moving warm thing just next to the tail. There is plenty of evidence on youtube they do just that.

It will take quite some robotic squirrels before you can statistically prove these things, but I'm fairly certain most of these logical assumptions will be backed up by numbers.

Re:easy (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582529)

The squirrel can counter-attack and bite the snake behind the head if it attacks the big moving warm thing just next to the tail. There is plenty of evidence on youtube they do just that.

So you're saying that a squirrel is really a small mongoose?

(Eyes furry rodent hanging out at the bird feeder with a bit more respect.)

Re:easy (2)

foniksonik (573572) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583291)

Except that squirrels eat nuts and mongoose eat snakes. Otherwise spot on.

Re:easy (2)

Formalin (1945560) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582729)

The only snake I have with thermal receptors is a little python.

He usually has pretty good aim, even in the dark. However, after he squeezes the prey for a few minutes... it often seems like it's too cold, and he has a very hard time finding the rodent. My heat-pit-less snakes never have this problem - maybe their smell is considerably better, to compensate? Or their physical (touch) heat sensing is better. Hmm.

Not sure if that's common, or if he's just extra special, though...

A python has a bunch of heat pits. Rattlers (pit vipers) only have a big one on either side of their face, I think it's supposed to be 'higher resolution', but I don't remember now.
Seems pretty wild that two entirely unrelated snakes both evolved the same exotic technology, with very different implementations, out of nothing. Neat stuff!

I wonder if this trick works on pythons?

Re:easy (0)

symes (835608) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583201)

I'm glad a fellow snake owner commented on this - my first reaction to the story was why don't they just go chat with some people who feed snakes regularly rather than rush off an build robotic squirrels. Obviously building robotic things are a priority it just seems there's probably more interesting robotic things to build. Anyhow, as far as I know, rattle snakes eyesight is far from their strongest sense and it would, in general, be odd for any land-based snake to rely on eyesight very much at all. Mine really go for vibrations and heat.

Re:easy (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585689)

Because statements from snake owners are not scientific evidence. Sure, they can be used to help build the hypothesis, but not to prove/disprove it (which is what the robots were for).

You should go bone up on the scientific method, seems you forgot some of it :P

Re:easy (1)

datavirtue (1104259) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583551)

You're the Adam Smith of the snake world.

Re:easy (1)

IWantMoreSpamPlease (571972) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583643)

Nitpick mode on:

It's not 'poisonous', it's 'venomous'

Re:easy (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585673)

Lets also not forget that most snake's vision is only acute enough to detect motion effectively - there are exceptions of course. So the tale shaking couples with the heat to draw the snake's attention away from the body with two senses.

Where's Jeff Minter when you need him? (3, Insightful)

julesh (229690) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582357)

Article title sounds like one of his games.

The squirrels are even cleverer than that (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582365)

Interestingly, it turns out that the squirrels (North American ground squirrels, in this case) are even cleverer than that, as the same team at UC Davis have previously shown. When confronted with a snake with infrared sensing organs (i.e. a pit viper, of which rattlesnakes are one variety), they engorge their tails with blood to send that infrared decoy signal. However, when they meet up with other kinds of non-infrared sensitive snakes (e.g. gopher snakes), they only flag with their tails; they don't use the infrared trick as well:

Squirrels wield a hot secret weapon [newscientist.com]

Why the difference? Presumably because it costs energy to send blood to your tail, where it then cools as it sends out its infrared signal. Thus, in evolutionary terms, it only makes sense to incur that cost if it has an advantage. Since gopher snakes can't sense in the infrared, why bother?

Of course, with respect to the current findings, it suggests that both flagging and infrared decoy measures are important to a ground squirrel, not just the infrared part. Otherwise, why would they bother flagging? Perhaps just because they have fun annoying snakes ...

And while the snakes might come off as just dumb reptiles in this story, let's not forget that those infrared sensing organs are pretty amazing as well. They have limited spatial resolution, but extraordinary temperature resolution, down to 0.001K. Indeed, once upon a time as a PhD student, I calculated that if you strapped a rattlesnake to the back of a 4 metre infrared telescope (!), it could detect the signal from Eta Carinae, one of the brightest infrared stars in the sky. Strap on thousands of rattlesnakes and count when each one rattled its tail, and you could take images :-)

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (2)

Trapezium Artist (919330) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582399)

Bugger: sorry, forgot to log in before posting the previous comment: it was from me, honest ... :-)

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582439)

No problem, I paid attention to what you wrote, not to your nickname.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582535)

Has anyone given thought to attaching rattlesnakes to sharks to assist with laser targeting? It would be a wonderfully evil contraption.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583941)

Bugger: sorry, forgot to log in before posting the previous comment: it was from me, honest ... :-)

Sorry. Mod points are non-transferrable.

The Mod Squad.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582437)

Strap on thousands of rattlesnakes and count when each one rattled its tail, and you could take images :-)

It's called the Snake Kicking Array, they're still trying to figure out where to build it. Last I heard they wanted to build it in some desert in Australia or South Africa just in case the snakes escape.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (5, Funny)

martin-boundary (547041) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582749)

Last I heard they wanted to build it in some desert in Australia or South Africa just in case the snakes escape.

I heard about that! Snakes on a plain...

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

Cragen (697038) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585073)

Last I heard they wanted to build it in some desert in Australia or South Africa just in case the snakes escape.

I heard about that! Snakes on a plain...

Bah-ha-ha-ha!!!! Oh, my sides hurt!! thank you.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

itmo (605864) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582647)

They should read up on heat seeking missile seeker heads and how to jam them. It seems to me Sidewinders have more commonalities with Sidewinders than previously thought. Basically it could be that the tail acts like a flare does or that it acts like an IRCM pulsing jammer does. ie. it either attracts the snake to strike at the center of the heat signature, which in this case is probably between the tail and body == air, or causes the snake to get confused about where to aim it's strike if the infrared sight is somehow messed up by the waving signal. Or it could be that is is confusing that the big part of the squirrel in visible light is the smaller part of the squirrel in infrared. Depends on if the snake is a single or dual band seeker. ;)

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (2)

itmo (605864) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582669)

(disclaimer:I don't know much about snake heat-sensor anatomy) It seems to me that (according to wikipedia) , the organs are adaptive and register relative temperature and calibrate themselves with a certain latency (50-150ms). So it might be that the squirrels are basically jamming the snake's heat detectors by moving the heat source at a certain hertz.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (5, Informative)

itmo (605864) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582683)

wikipedia: "The nerve fibers in the pit organ are constantly firing at a very low rate. Objects that are within a neutral temperature range do not change the rate of firing; the neutral range is determined by the average thermal radiation of all objects in the receptive field of the organ. The thermal radiation above a given threshold causes an increase in the temperature of the nerve fiber, resulting in stimulation of the nerve and subsequent firing, with increased temperature resulting in increased firing rate.[9] The sensitivity of the nerve fibers is estimated to be >0.001 C.[10]" So assuming I fill up your sight picture with a moving heat source which will cause the average temperature of the whole area to rise. Will that not mess up your contrast by making your signal show up less from the average? So by filling up the field of visiion with a heated moving tail, they are actually making their body show up less. So what the snake sees is a confusing , low contrast blob of heat.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

splutty (43475) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582695)

And then the bar closed..

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (2)

Antique Geekmeister (740220) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583111)

Isn't it easier to "send blood flow" to a moving limb? Try warming up your hands or feet on a cold day without flexing them: it really does help to move them. Also, just thinking about the body movements, I think an animal that already has some motion going can dodge or jump more easily than one standing completely still. That tail gives some leverage to twist or turn the _rest_ of the body, doesn't it?

Did you publish the rattlesnake IR astronomy theory? That kind of analysis is one of the delights of science.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583627)

n't it easier to "send blood flow" to a moving limb?

A thousand slashdotters shake their wiener in a perplexed expression as they judge the results of an ad-hoc experiment.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585743)

Doesn't apply here... because we can't voluntarily attempt to change blood flow like that, we have to do it via motion of the limb or such.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (2)

V. P. Winterbuttocks (2246736) | more than 2 years ago | (#39586131)

I have a voluntary attempt to change blood flow like that... in my pants!

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39586279)

No you don't. It's involuntary.

I assure you it's entirely voluntary (1)

V. P. Winterbuttocks (2246736) | more than 2 years ago | (#39586335)

It would only be involuntary if I didn't like it.

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583137)

Good.I like the squirrels , and feed them. http://www.anfiber.com/ <URL:http://www.anfiber.com/>

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583169)

How does the squirrel know which species of snakes use IR and which don't?

Re:The squirrels are even cleverer than that (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585725)

It could be that pumping extra blood into the decoy is an extra risk - eg, a successful strike from the snake would result in more blood loss.

Unusual (3, Funny)

LittleBigScript (618162) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582387)

I find it odd that a snake in the grass wouldn't stike out at some hot tail.

Re:Unusual (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582517)

Sir David Attenborough, naturalist [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Attenborough] explains it very well in the series BBC Life. The squirrel brushes it's tail with the predator's skin (when it finds one - snakes loose their skin from time to time) in preparation for an encounter with the snake. Then it wiggles it's tail and makes sudden moves towards the snake to give the impression of a bigger snake. The snake won't attack another bigger snake so it retreats.

Must see the BBC Life series. Its just beautiful.

Re:Unusual (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582577)

Whoosh!

Re:Unusual (1)

LittleBigScript (618162) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583031)

You must work for BBC Life or you're a spam bot^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H slashvertisement.

Re:Unusual (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39584043)

The squirrel brushes it is tail with the predator's skin (when it finds one - snakes loose their skin from time to time) in preparation for an encounter with the snake. Then it wiggles it is tail and makes sudden moves towards the snake to give the impression of a bigger snake.

That doesn't make any sense at all.

Re:Unusual (1)

Rhacman (1528815) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585353)

It's intimidating, some tail is just too hot to be had. It plays against the snake's feelings of inadequacy. The moral of the story is that you've just got to keep slithering out of your hole in the ground every morning, keep searching for that hot tail, and don't be afraid to strike when you find it!

Is this trait unique to the Grey Squirrel? (1)

MrIlios (2524820) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582391)

I'm guessing it's unlikely, but I was wondering if this trait can also be found in the Red Squirrel native to the UK - no rattle snake prey here, so I'm guessing this trait was never needed. Either that, or the Red's were so good at it, the rattle snakes were wiped out by starvation ;)

Re:Is this trait unique to the Grey Squirrel? (1)

Trapezium Artist (919330) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582415)

The squirrels in question aren't the grey or red ones that run around in trees; they're ground squirrels, so things like marmots and prairie dogs at the big end and chipmunks at the small end.

I don't think regular grey tree squirrels are from the same genus. And I'm not 100% sure that all ground squirrels do this; the classic example of an infrared light sabre wielding species is the California ground squirrel.

Scientist Cockfight Gladiator Entertainment (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582545)

Oh, come on. This is just a form of cockfighting thinly shrouded in a veil of "scientific experiment." The scientists just really want to watch and bet on the fights. Wait until the PETA folks hear about this!

It there a PETR for robots, cruelly forced into combat with vicious snakes, to entertain bloodthirsty humans?

Airlink wasn't very practical.. (1)

Sigg3.net (886486) | more than 2 years ago | (#39582603)

When you've confirmed that IR link has been established, hit CTRL+P.
You still had to walk right over there.

Re:Airlink wasn't very practical.. (1)

uncanny (954868) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583123)

so.... to connect this to the topic of the article, um... when an Airlink is confronted with a rattlesnake, its defense mechanism is to cause you to walk over to it, thus causing excess heat to buildup and scare away the snake, or at least get you bitten instead of the airlink?
that's quite a leap you made, but i guess it makes sense!

Not what I was expecting (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39582829)

Sitting at work I read the subject "Robotic Squirrels Battle It Out With Rattlesnakes". My mind starts to race with cool images of robotic squirrels trashing some serious bad ass rattle snakes.

My hand shaking in anticipation I decide just this once to open up a post on slashdot when I should be working. Looking around I see the mindless drones tapping on their keyboards and I think to myself - after I read this the world will some how be different.

I then open the article and find that it's a robot squirrel that wags it's tail.

FAIL

Who pays for this stuff? (1)

iamwahoo2 (594922) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583307)

While this topic makes for some fun and entertaining reading, I cannot help but wonder "who pays for this crap?" I recognize that there is value in humans exploring and understanding our world as well as the general pursuit of knowledge in all forms. However, I have seen a lot of very important research that fails to receive funding because there are simply higher priorities and so I wonder how something like this managed to get above the line where someone was willing to put time and money into it. Maybe there is a lot more value in this than I realize, but I am not seeing it.

Re:Who pays for this stuff? (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585803)

Newsflash: not everyone shares the same priorities.

Save the robotic squirrels from this torture! (1)

kybur (1002682) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583343)

Their life is already bad enough...

"Now I lay me down to bed
Darkness won't engulf my head
I can see by infrared
How I hate the night"

--Marvin

Re:Save the robotic squirrels from this torture! (1)

markian (745705) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585917)

It's, "Now the world has gone to bed"

You were thinking of the first verse,

"Now I lay me down to sleep
Try to count electric sheep
Sweet dream wishes you can keep
How I hate the night"

I feel an award coming (4, Interesting)

2fuf (993808) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583383)

definitely ig Nobel worthy

Robot Squirrels...Rattlesnakes...Fighting? (1)

eternaldoctorwho (2563923) | more than 2 years ago | (#39583415)

Ah, good. Some good old fashioned nightmare fuel.

Over Analyzing (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39583519)

If I encounter a rattlesnake in the wild, I might be alarmed which would rais the tempature in my face. Does that mean I am communicating something to the snake Just because the snake can detect the thermal changes?

Sounds like a waste (1)

Marrow (195242) | more than 2 years ago | (#39584545)

I'm sorry, but what important problem are they trying to solve with this "research"?

Re:Sounds like a waste (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39585931)

I'm sorry, but what important problem are they trying to solve with this "research"?

*deep, annoyed sigh* You're right. Studying the predator-prey relationship of creatures has absolutely no relevance to your bank account and retirement fund (or alternatively, your next iPhone). This was a complete waste of Patriotic(tm) American(c) Taxpayer(tm) MONEY(tm)(r)(c) and science should restrict its research to far more pressing matters, like figuring out how to sell a 20-pair pack of tube socks for only $5.99, a significant technological achievement over the 10-pack for $3.99. And we'll try to get it solved before the next American Idol airs, just for you. So just go back to the magic moving picture box and sit down with your rounded-rectangle shiny and we'll get all the important research done.

...is he gone yet? Can we get back to actually learning how the world works now?

snake's point of view (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39584595)

From the snake's point of view, I would expect that the flagging warm tail blurs the location of the squirrel. This would be more efficient for the squirrel to do than to actually jump around. The squirrel exhibiting this behavior is obviously aware of the snake and is facing it in a defensive stance. Therefore, the heat profile is mostly its head obscured by a mass of warm tail moving. I'm not sure how good a snake's depth perception is, but I imagine it isn't very good due to the lateral positioning of their eyes.

Re:snake's point of view (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 2 years ago | (#39586387)

But according to the summary its the heat that elicits the snake's peculiar behavior, not the motion. That was the point of building robotic squirrels. The peculiarity being why the snake does not strike at this warm object.

How Does Their Behavior Change (1)

Greyfox (87712) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585087)

If you put rocket launchers on the squirrel? We must test it... FOR SCIENCE!

Grey Squirrel, Grey Squirrel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39585215)

So you're saying the Grey Squirrel swishes its bushy tale?

Does it crinkle up its little nose?
Does it stick a nut between its toes?

No shit, Sherlock (1)

Oligonicella (659917) | more than 2 years ago | (#39585741)

"research so far suggests it's the heated tail, not the flagging motion"

The rattlesnake is a pit viper. IR is it's targeting flag. Holy shit, every herpetologist in the damned world knows this. Hell, every biologist in the world. Every fucking kid who likes snakes.

"Research" like this is only proving the known with an empirical test. Worthwhile in the textbook sense that some other animal has evolved a mechanism to defeat it, worthless as news concerning the snake.
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