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Squirrels and Snakes Face Off

As part of the national #SciFund Challenge, an SDSU ecology graduate student uses a "Robosquirrel" to help crowdfund $3,500 for their research project.
Ground squirrels and rattlesnakes have co-evolved for thousands of years.
Ground squirrels and rattlesnakes have co-evolved for thousands of years.

When faced with a venomous snake, most creatures run away. Ground squirrels, however, show no fear.

The rodents approach rattlesnakes within striking distance, kick dirt in their faces and wave their tails, emitting infrared heat. Rattlesnakes are the only known vertebrate to detect these signals.

The interactions between squirrels and snakes are of particular interest to Bree Putman, a second-year student in the joint-doctorate ecology program between San Diego State and University of California Davis. Her project, the Squirrel-Snake Face Off, aims to study the evolutionary arms race by showing how selective forces shape animal behavior.

Behind the scenes

With the help of biology professor Rulon Clark and seven undergraduate interns, the team will study rattlesnake offenses and ground squirrel defenses using network security cameras and a biorobotic squirrel developed by engineers at UC Davis.

"Robosquirrel" is made of a real squirrel and can be controlled to tail-flag with or without infrared heat. It has the visual and thermal appearnace, as well as the smell of a live squirrel. The robot will help give insight to how and why snakes respond to tail-flagging.

"We really want to find the patterns and reasoning behind these strange behaviors," Putman said.

Get more information about the project.

Novel approach

The Squirrel-Snake Face Off is one of 49 research proposals part of the #SciFund Challenge, a nationwide project testing alternative funding for science through crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding uses the collective cooperation, attention and trust of others to network and pool money and other resources together, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.

Until now, the idea had been largely untried in the science community.

"Crowdfunding provides a new way to directly couple science and society through the Internet," Putman said. "It's a big cultural shift: it gives the public a stake in the research and they can interact directly with the researcher."

Putman hopes to raise $3,500 by Dec. 15. to offer room and board for the interns. The research will be conducted at the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve in the foothills east of San Jose this summer.

More information about Putman's proposal can be found on her fundraising page

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