Oh yes, the economy, is what we are hearing about. Jobs. Foreign policy and Big Bird. But did you know that we have even more serious things to attend to? That’s right, we do. It appears that we have this great concern in the relationship between squirrels and rattlesnakes. It’s true and to prove how serious the federal government is about this relationship they dumped $390,000 in a grant proposal in 2010 and a $325,000 grant in 2011 by the National Science Foundation. This is in addition to the taxpayers of California who were also funding the salaries of the researchers.
What is odd in all of this is that the recipients of our tax dollars aren’t even using real squirrels! That’s right, they are using robot squirrels to interact with real rattlesnakes.
Donald Owings, an expert on animal behavior, who dies in 2011 and Sanjay Joshi were major contributors to the project. Joshi is the professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis and built the original “robosquirrels” for Owings.
The research then and now centers on two squirrel behaviors in reaction to rattlesnakes: a tail flagging movement and the warming of the tail. Owings, with Professor Richard Coss and colleagues, observed that when adult squirrels detect a snake, they approach it head-first in an elongated posture, making flagging movements with their tails. Owings and Coss noticed that when confronting a rattlesnake, the squirrels also heated their tails.
Because rattlesnakes can “see” in the infrared, the researchers thought the squirrels might be sending a signal to the snakes. But, with live squirrels, there is no way to separate tail flagging from tail heating.
Enter the robots. Joshi’s engineering lab built a squirrel with a heatable tail and a tail flagging mechanism, each controlled separately.
Using the robosquirrel, Aaron Rundus, then a graduate student in Owings’ lab and now an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, showed that the snakes responded to the heat signal from the squirrel.
The article goes on to indicate the results of the study:
Once the researchers have located a foraging snake, they put down some track, set up the robosquirrel and a video camera to record the scene and retreat behind a blind. The snakes seem to accept the robosquirrel as real, Clark said. One of their videos shows a snake biting the robot’s head.
Snakes will rarely strike at a flagging adult squirrel — and if they do they almost always miss, Clark said.
“Squirrels have a remarkable ability to move out of the way of an oncoming snake strike,” he said. Even adult squirrels that do not seem to be aware of a snake will often successfully dodge a strike.
Squirrel pups are much more vulnerable. They have less resistance to snake venom and seem more reckless in their behavior. They show the same displaying behavior as adults, but will get closer to snakes — sometimes with fatal results.
Joshi commented on his work saying, “The reason I’m so excited is that with robots we can really change how animal behavior studies are done.”
Well that’s just great Joshi! It looks like if you can get nearly $400,000 to build robosquirrels and play with rattlers at taxpayer expense, you are set for life. Taxpayers should not be funding adolescent adults who like to play with robot squirrels, especially very expensive ones.
While the squirrels only cost a couple of hundred dollars to build, that vast majority of the grant money pays for the professors.
Senator Tom Coburn, who puts out his Wastebook, which is a collection of government waste projects like robosquirrel, said, “…we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff.”
John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said “Every time we do a report, every recipient will have a rationale, but they rarely provide detail or background material … if the university wants to spend money on students, that’s fine. I’m not sure taxpayers would agree that we need to finance robotic squirrels.”
“[The language is] used to rationalize and make politicians feel good about these projects,” he said. “Senator Coburn is not against studying the squirrels. But we don’t need to borrow money from the future generations and overseas to do so. ”
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