Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thanks to All Who Contributed to My #SciFund Challenge Project

Several outstanding people fueled my #SciFund Challenge project, “Squirrel-Snake Face Off!” After 45 days of being posted on the RocketHub website, my project raised a total of $899. This money will help provide room and board to undergraduate research assistants next summer. The contributions will help us form a better understanding of predator-prey interactions, and co-evolution. I am grateful to the following people:

Jarret Byrnes
Emily Taylor
Gretchen Anderson
Dennis and Valarie Clark
Miriam Goldstein
John Murphy
Mike Cardwell
Bernd Wolff
N. Beeznas
Robert Hastings
Karl Pietrzak
Stephen Mercer
The Putmans
Wendy Matthews
Jason Held
Mark Tsang
The Saharguns
Melissa Amarello (check out and support her crowd-funding project here)

Overall, the #SciFund Challenge, which brought together 50 international scientists to post their research projects on RocketHub, raised a total of $76,230 for scientific research!  There were over 1,400 donors!  

Monday, October 31, 2011

Crowd Funding: the Grants of the Future?

Internet crowd-funding campaigns are all the rage right now. If you don't already know, crowd-funding is a process where a person or collective group posts a proposed project (be it musical, theatrical, or educational) on a credited website, such as Amazon's or, in the hopes that web-surfers will donate money to the project. There is usually a time horizon on the person's ability to raise their project monetary goal, and contributors to the project are often rewarded with gifts for their donations.

Traditionally, scientists fund their research through grants or fellowships. However, crowd-funding may be the new alternative approach. Crowd-funding is similar to grants in that it is funded by the general public (i.e. - several grants are funded with tax payer money). However, through crowd-funding, the public is made aware of and has a stake in the research that they are donating to. Scientists may be able to form a better connection with the general public through internet publicity...why not try out crowd-funding? This was the idea of Jai and Jarrett (of UCSB) who started the #SciFund Challenge, a project that brings together scientists from all over the globe to raise research money through crowd-funding. Check out their blog here:

I was excited about the #SciFund Challenge, especially because I had heard of successful crowd-funding campaigns for other liberal arts projects. I signed up immediately, and I am pleased to announce that all projects go live tonight on! Please check out all the awesome projects and donate any amount possible to those you find intriguing. Below is the promotional video for my campaign, please enjoy:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Desert Kangaroo Rat Confronts Sidewinder!

Desert kangaroo rats are known to approach snakes to within striking distance and footdrum (making seismic vibrations by rapidly hitting their hind feet on the ground). They also kick sand at snakes, presumably to disturb the snake forcing it to move to a new area. While conducting research in the Mojave Desert this summer, we filmed footage of a kangaroo rat confronting a sidewinder rattlesnake. The rat investigates the burrow where the sidewinder is hiding, and kicks sand into the burrow. It also moves a distance away and footdrums repeatedly. After the kangaroo rat abandons the area, the sidewinder exits the burrow and moves to the ambush site it utilized the night before. The kangaroo rat's antipredator behavior seems to not have an immediate effect on the snake's behavior. However, like rattlesnakes that are confronted by California ground squirrels, these sidewinders may abandon their ambush sites sooner after receiving antipredator displays than if they had not received them.

This recording may be the first public footage of a kangaroo rat confronting a sidewinder. As a PhD student in the Clark lab at SDSU, I am investigating the nature and function of these interactions. Unlike California ground squirrels, kangaroo rats are not known to be resistant to rattlesnake venom. Thus, close confrontations with sidewinder rattlesnakes could be extremely risky. These behaviors should, on average, elicit responses from the snake that benefit the rat. We think that kangaroo rat displays either remove the snake from the area and/or help the rat safely approach the snake to gain information on the predator risk level. Enjoy this video of a rarely seen behavior.

VIDEO DISCLOSURE: audio does not start working until about 1 minute in, but it is well worth the wait because then you can hear the footdrumming!

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Sneak-peak Before Data Analysis Begins

Now that the field season is over, data analysis begins!  A preliminary skimming through the recordings has revealed great footage of rattlesnake-small mammal interactions.  I have posted a "teaser video" of an adult squirrel interacting with a young male snake named "Death Star".  Although we do not yet know the entire story behind this confrontation, it includes almost all antipredator behaviors exhibited by squirrels: approach, tail-flagging, substrate throwing, and alarm calling.  This video also provides an example of the footage we gather from our labored hours during the summer field season. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sidewinders and Kangaroo Rats

We have been trying with great effort to catch sidewinders, but it is hard! We set up drift fence traps (see below) but those didn't work. We also have been scanning the landscape for the past week hoping to stumble across one or see their tracks in the sand. Still, not much luck. So far we only have caught 8 snakes, but only four were big enough to implant transmitters into. This means that, as of right now, we have a sample size of 4 individuals--not great. Hopefully, this summer's experience will teach us lessons for next year's work. 

Drift fence trap--we made a "fence" using cloth and wooden stakes, and at each end we positioned a trap.  The idea is that animals run along the fence until they reach the trap where they hopefully enter it without realizing that it is a trap. We have caught mostly lizards in the traps, but no sidewinders.

We also have been trapping desert kangaroo rats. We inserted metal tags into their ears and dye-marked their fur. Like with the squirrels, this will help us ID individuals. They are much more docile (and cute) than the ground squirrels. 

 Field assistant, Curt, holding a desert kangaroo rat that is about to be processed

 Rulon measuring the rat

 Its cute little face, much cuter than the squirrels

As of today, we are continuously monitoring the behaviors of our four 'winders. Using the wireless network security cameras, we hope to capture interactions between kangaroo rats and snakes. Such interactions have never been recorded. This makes this study system particularly interesting (in that we know very little about these predator-prey relationships).  

 Sidewinder we came across in ambush position

Can you spot the snake in this picture?

We tracked one snake, Butch Cassidy, to a burrow that he has clearly been hunting near.  Can you see the disk-like impressions in the sand above the burrow where he has been sitting in ambush?

Video of a winder, winding

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Snakes in the Grass" article

Check out this article about our research at the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve.  It gives a good description of what us crazy ecologists do for a living:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First Field Season Commences in the Mojave Desert

I love love love the desert. Sometimes I wish my field work was solely desert-based, but I am fortunate enough to work in several types of habitat. We arrived at the Desert Studies Center (just near the town of Baker) two days ago. It is surprisingly not as hot as I was expecting and it is as beautiful as ever.

Kangaroo rats are another small rodent species that display very specific anti-snake behaviors in which they approach snakes to within striking distance, jump back, and foot drum on the ground.  We wish to record these interactions using our wireless surveillance system, but we first need to find a suitable study site. Thus, we are here looking for a site with abundant populations of both Desert Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys deserti) and Sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes).  Enjoy the pics below of the several species we have encountered so far and of our work here in the Mojave Desert.

The Green Machine alone in a vast desert

The moon rising 

Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) One of my favorite species!

 Its cute little head

Leaf nosed Snake (Phyllorhynchus decurtatus)-found two in one night!

 Baby sidewinder (frontal view)

Side view

External attachment of a transmitter on a subadult sidewinder (we glued sand onto it so it blends in)

Nice view of the supraocular scales (those protrusions above the eyes)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bye Bye BORR :(

The squirrel pups are growing up and thus we are finished with our work at BORR. It was a great field season and I can never replace the awesome field assistants I had. I hope they learned a lot from their experience; I know they will go on to do great things. I will be leaving the reserve tomorrow, making a pit stop in San Diego, then it is off to the Mojave Desert for the rest of July. Continue to tune in, sidewinder and kangaroo rat interactions will be appearing shortly!

BORR 2011 group picture (including snake-buddies)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

BORR Species Accounts #2

As we wrap up our work at BORR, I would like to share with you the variety of animals we have seen.  Several are "lifers" for me and some of my field assistants too. It appears that species diversity is high at BORR, probably because human presence is so reduced. Enjoy the animal photos below. 

Funny looking pocket gopher

 Garter Snake (Thamnophis elgans)

 Striped Racer (Coluber lateralis)

Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)

 Some crazy-looking rodent we caught in a drift fence

Brewer's blackbird that got caught in a squirrel trap

 Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla)

 Western Toad (Bufo boreus)

 Ring-necked snake (Diadophis puntatus)

 Western Yellow-bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor)

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Fence lizard blue bellies!  (used for staking territory and attracting a mate)
Arboreal Salamander (Aneides lugubris)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What Goes In Must Come Out (but maybe not like this)

As the summer progresses, the snakes are eating more and more. I have witnessed four small mammals being swallowed by rattlesnakes: two squirrel pups and two mice. Furthermore, we have seen several snakes with food bulges (aka full bellies). In order to determine the diet of our population of snakes, we have made a few snakes regurgitate their meals. We found a pup in a small juvenile snake and an adult squirrel in an adult snake. Both of these meals are very interesting because they are large for these two snakes to eat (half of their body weight!). Also, adult squirrels are resistant to rattlesnake venom so it is interesting that an adult squirrel was ingested. Maybe our population of squirrels is not as resistant as we think. Check out natural snake feeding events and our regurgitation methods below!

Chewbacca eating a pup

Making a juvenile reguritate

 The finished product

 Posing with a partially digested squirrel

 An adult snake regurgitating an adult squirrel

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robosquirrel is Struck!

We have been presenting Robosquirrel to snakes in ambush position. During one trial, a snake actually struck the head of the robot! It also left a pool of venom on the head which we collected into a syringe. This is interesting because one hypothesis as to why squirrels tail flag in front of snakes is to deter them from striking.  During this trial, the robot was not tail-flagging presumably allowing the snake to strike more easily than if the robot had been tail-flagging. We need to perform more trials to see if any patterns emerge. Enjoy the video!

Monday, June 13, 2011


I am lucky that I am able to use biorobotics in my research. This means that I can actually test the hypotheses we have about squirrel tail-flagging. Currently, all we know about tail-flagging is based off of observations of live squirrels interacting with snakes, but in order to test the true function of this behavior, we need to manipulate the tail-flagging signal. We obviously can't do this with live squirrels (for logistical and ethical issues), but thanks to a collaboration with engineers at UC Davis, we can use Robosquirrel instead. We are using Robosquirrel to test how snakes perceive and respond to the displays made by ground squirrels.

In the wild, once squirrels detect a snake they will approach it and tail flag (move their tails back and forth). Additionally, squirrels heat up their tails (increase the thermal signature) in response to rattlesnakes (which sense infrared heat using pits on the sides on their heads), but they do not do this in response to gopher snakes (which cannot sense infrared heat). We want to know if heat truly is important in this display. Does it decrease the snake's ability to pin-point a strike? Does it make the squirrel look bigger? Does it help the snake "see" tail-flagging better, especially if it is dark out?

Also, what does the tail-flagging do for the squirrel? Does it communicate something to the snake? Does it prevent the snake from striking? Does it make the snake abandon the area? By presenting Robosquirrel to snakes with and without tail-flagging, and with and without infrared heat, we hope to answer some of these questions.  

Robosquirrel at the end of its track. We glued grass to the track to conceal the metal box that hides the electrical wires under the robot.  

The robosquirrel experimental setup. We lay down the track to within 30cm of a snake burrow. We set up a blind and wireless security camera to watch the snakes stealthily. Once the snake emerges and assumes ambush position we are ready to roll robosquirrel into position and give a display.   

 Robosquirrel ready for action!

The synchronized tail flag dance

Wireless Video Cameras Finally Working

The reason we picked BORR as our field site was because they have a tower system that spreads wireless internet over most of the property. Our goal is to monitor snake activity in real-time (via the internet) so that we can record squirrel interactions when they actually occur as opposed to reviewing hours of recordings at a later date. Unfortunately, the wireless did not reach the part of the reserve where we found all of our snakes. Luckily, we were able to set up another tower that transmits the wireless signal to our site. This week we finally started to use our wireless security cameras in the field. Check out this awesome use of technology below.

Camera set up in the field. All the camera equipment is stored in a backpack in a large black trash bag next to the tripod (to protect it all from the elements).  

Close-up of our "hi-tech" snake cams. The head of the camera can pan, tilt, and zoom as needed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

My First Snake Surgery!

Like I wrote before, our external transmitter attachment turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt. Thus, we had to surgically implant the transmitters into the body cavity of our snakes. This is a common practice among snake researchers, and snakes usually recover with no problems within a day. Rulon walked me through the steps of my first snake surgery so that I can independently insert transmitters into future snakes.  

Palpatin knocked out and ready to go

 Making the first cut with the scalpel. I cut the skin between the first and second row of scales, an incision about 5 scales long.  

Rulon instructing me in the process

Opening up the body cavity

Inserting the transmitter

Rulon shows me how to give the snake mouth-to-mouth if necessary. You insert a tube into its glotis and blow--same as CPR but without the chest compressions

Nice close-up of the head