Thursday, 3 January 2013

What Does It Take to Fool a Snake? Send in the Robot Biologists Use Mechanical Squirrels, Frogs to Study Wildlife; 'Snooki' the Bird – via Herp Digest

By JOHN LETZING, Wall Street Journal, 12/19/12
Scientists are building fake animals to help them study real ones. But can a robotic squirrel fool a real snake? WSJ's John Letzing reports.

The snake in the grass didn't seem to believe in Rulon Clark's squirrel, which could complicate matters for the professor.

Dr. Clark had carried his prized ground squirrel into the hills near San Jose, Calif., last year to study the way squirrels' behavior affects predators. He placed it by a grass patch he knew concealed a rattlesnake.

The snake, perhaps not surprisingly, sprang and sank its fangs into the rodent. Less predictable, for the rattler, was what happened next: The squirrel glided backward, its face frozen in a placid expression.

The snake flicked its tongue—a defensive signal—as if there were something odd about this squirrel.

There was: It was a robot.

"It's likely that the snake realized as soon as it bit the fake squirrel that it bit something that wasn't a live animal," says Dr. Clark, an assistant biology professor at San Diego State University.

Trying to dupe real animals with fake ones is an increasingly popular methodology among biologists. The aim, they say, is to conduct focused, repeatable studies on how animals respond to other creatures. Spurring the trend are ever-cheaper motors, sensors and computer chips.

In recent experiments, scientists have tried to infiltrate the animal kingdom with robotic rodents, birds, frogs and fish, among other creatures. "It's producing breakthroughs in animal behavior that would not probably have been possible without these robotic models," says Sanjay Joshi, a mechanical engineering researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has designed versions of the squirrel over several years with his students.

Today's robot animals build on earlier studies, such as the one that persuaded cockroaches to come out of the dark. In an experiment that began in 2002, scientists in Belgium, France and Switzerland deployed cockroach robots to mingle with real roaches.

Aiming to influence roach behavior, they found that robot roaches coated with pheromones could lead living bugs to hang out under brighter light if the fakes ventured out first. The real roach's sentiment was probably something like "Oh yeah, it's a friend of mine," says Simon Garnier, an assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who participated in the study.

Some animals prove too eager to believe. UC Davis biologist Gail Patricelli this year hid in a rural Wyoming hunting blind to study the mating habits of the sage grouse using a robotic bird named Snooki, which she had built to make natural-looking neck movements by using material from Spanx undergarments.

Robotic Snooki was so persuasive that "a male jumped on her a few times this season before she could escape," Dr. Patricelli says. Male suitors were "not particularly choosy," she says, forcing her to jump out and shoo them away, generally ruining the day's work.

Some robots must merely blend in. Carrie Wall, while a University of South Florida doctoral candidate, joined a study in the Gulf of Mexico using a torpedo-shaped machine that mimicked a fish's buoyancy technique so it could stealthily eavesdrop on real fish.

It picked up an unexpected sound at night, which she says the researchers hypothesized was herring passing gas to alter buoyancy. They published the flatulence findings from the faux fish this year.

But animal robots can have trouble staying in character. Barrett Klein, an assistant professor of animal behavior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, joined a team seven years ago that is now studying the mating habits of the túngara frog in Panamanian rain forests. His colleagues had a crude fake frog with a manually-inflated condom to replicate the male's expanding vocal sac—a mating signal.

Dr. Klein and his team have since crafted increasingly realistic frogs made of urethane with catheter-balloon sacs that inflate automatically. They find female frogs near the Panama Canal and later, in a lab, present them with two mechanical males that inflate their vocal sacs while mating calls play on speakers.

The female will usually choose a mechanical mate—if he stays in character. Several times, a robot frog's vocal sac burst as he wooed. In one instance the live female "just kind of stopped, turned and wandered away," Dr. Klein says. "I can only imagine what she was thinking."
Even harder to woo have been some politicians. Dr. Clark says his squirrel studies are important for understanding animal behavior and thus worthy of the National Science Foundation grant he received. "Our research is an important contribution to our understanding of antagonistic co-evolution in general, and the evolution of predator-prey communication in particular," he says.

Not persuaded is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who in October put Dr. Clark's work in his annual "Wastebook" of profligate federal spending alongside an Iowa agricultural and motor sports museum and the overprinting of "Simpsons" postage stamps, among other things.

"These projects truly are representative of a broader problem, which is Washington's inability to set priorities," says John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Coburn. "It's clearly unusual to spend taxpayer dollars on a robot squirrel."

Dr. Clark says politicians shouldn't target funding like his while the U.S. struggles to remain competitive in training scientists and engineers. Less than 5% of his $390,000 in grant funding went to robots, he says.

The occasional serpent skeptic aside, Dr. Clark's pseudo-squirrels have been successful enough that he plans to use a kangaroo-rat robot next year to study how the critter's thumping foot affects predators.

The robosquirrel evolved from less-polished strains. Aaron Rundus, as a UC Davis graduate student, watched a primitive version face a snake several years back. Everything went well until the squirrel's tail flew off. As the snake had now seen the robot unmasked, the experiment halted, he says, because "you can't erase that memory."

The current model is made of hard foam and a pelt, and stored in a live rodent's bedding for authentic odor. Dr. Clark seeks snakes in the brush and slides the motorized squirrel toward them on a track. The squirrel waves an automated tail heated by coils—to test the theory that real-life versions repel snake strikes by heating up their tails and waving them.

He says he hasn't completed his field experiments yet. It may become clear that the snakes haven't sufficiently bought his impostor squirrel all along, he says. "If that happens, we're back to square one."

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