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Robosquirrels offer new insight into animal behavior


Video transcript:

This project involves studying the way that rattlesnakes and squirrels communicate with each other. The motivation for this project was studying how rattlesnakes and squirrels interact, especially when squirrels are trying to protect their newborns in the springtime. 

The rattlesnakes detect heat very precisely with a specific organ called a pit organ. So, they use this organ to hunt other animals to basically see in the dark. What the squirrels have learned to do is they've learned to heat their tail to ward off these rattlesnakes, knowing that the rattlesnakes have the ability to see their heat signature.

This actually turned out to be the first known communication between animals using heat signals. Another interesting part of this project was when the squirrels interacted snakes that could not sense their heat, they didn't bother to heat up their tail.

In the past to do this kind of research, biologists would have to go into the field and be very fortunate to see rattlesnake and squirrel interactions and almost be lucky enough and patient enough to see these natural encounters. With the robotic squirrel, we can have rattlesnake-squirrel encounters happen on our schedule and we can do very controlled experiments in which we make the squirrel do certain movements and certain heating styles in order to study what really makes a difference in affecting rattlesnake-squirrel interaction.

So, the robosquirrel is comprised of our controller box with the board and our mirco-controller. This is where all the processing and control is done. We have the remote control that sends temperature and tail wagging information. At the end of about a 10-foot pole, we have the squirrel itself and there's a taxidermied squirrel that is full of this heating coil that controls the body temperature, then we have a servo motor and the tail, which also was wrapped in the heating coil and so the tail and the body have independently - we can control their temperatures and we can move the tail back-and-forth like that for the wagging.

By bringing engineers and biologists together, we're creating new ways of doing science and hopefully making discoveries that would not have been made unless we brought these different fields together. In our laboratory, we look at controls problems and robotics problems and their applications and many different kinds of robotic animals are currently being developed all around the country and around the world in order to study animal behavior. And this could be really the start of a whole way of doing animal behavior research.