I guess we need to take a SKWERL caching with us from now on...
Squirrels put the heat on snakes, study finds
By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg - Bee Staff Writer
Published 7:12 am PDT Tuesday, August 14, 2007
When it comes to looking like the biggest, meanest squirrel mom around, California ground squirrels have a special weapon in their arsenal: hot tails.
Squirrels heat their tails an extra 3 degrees when trying to chase off rattlesnakes, which perceive infrared, UC Davis researchers have discovered. Indicating they can tell one snake species from another, the squirrels don't apply the same heat for gopher snakes, which don't have thermal sensors.
Making the case for infrared communication even stronger, rattlers appear to get the message. The snakes are more cautious around specially built "robo squirrels" with warm tails than around the same furry robots with cooler tails.
"I was definitely surprised that we got a difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes," said Aaron Rundus, who did his doctoral research on squirrels' use of infrared.
His findings, published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, earned Rundus an award for best student paper from the Animal Behavior Society.
"It's a very exciting finding," said John Hoogland, a University of Maryland behavioral ecologist who was not connected with the study. "The infrared really turns your head."
The study highlights the novel and creative ways animals try to outwit each other, often in realms beyond human senses.
"When we look hard enough and are able to put away our biases, we just find the most incredible things about animals," said Hoogland, whose own research focuses on prairie dogs, another type of ground squirrel.
In the long evolutionary battle between squirrels and snakes, California ground squirrels have toughened up plenty.
Adult squirrels have developed an immunity to rattlesnake venom, so a snake cannot poison them for easy dining. Since vulnerable squirrel pups remain a potential snake dinner, adult squirrels, particularly mothers, have emerged as defenders of the burrow.
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