March 14, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET
Scientists are weaseling into the minds of rattlesnakes with the help of a robotic squirrel in an effort to better understand the evolutionary arms race between the rodents and their venom-packing predators.
As its name implies, RoboSquirrel is built to mimic a real-life ground squirrel. It even sleeps in a squirrel nest so that it smells like the real thing.
Such biorobots give scientists control over experimental variables when studying how and why animals do the things they do. That is, instead of just watching real animals, scientists can control the robots to test hypotheses about specific behaviors.
In the case of squirrel versus rattlesnake interactions, scientists know that squirrels have evolved resistance to snake venom and tend to confront rattlesnakes with a tail flagging behavior instead of fleeing at the site of their predator.
Why do they do this? Does a little tail wagging really scare off a rattlesnake?
When the squirrels are wagging their tails, their tails also heat up. Scientists think this makes the squirrels more detectable to the snakes, which are sensitive to heat, explains University of California at San Diego researcher Bree Putman in a guest post at the robotics blog Hizook.
While the research is in the early stages, preliminary results suggest that tail flagging keeps rattlesnakes at bay. But, when the researchers prevent tail flagging, as illustrated in the video below, RoboSquirrel gets attacked.
For more info, check out Putman's Strike, Rattle, and Roll blog, where she notes that coming in May is RoboSquirrel 2.0 as well as RoboKangarooRat.
-- John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technologyseries, watch the featured video below.