I was finishing up my coursework the past months, but now I am back in business! The field season started three weeks ago and we are chugging along slowly but surely. I have five field interns working with me and they are wonderful additions to Team Crotalus (fyi - Crotalus is the genus for the rattlesnakes). This field season, our main focus is to conduct two field experiments testing the function of squirrel tail-flagging. We hypothesize that squirrels tail-flag to rattlesnakes to signal their vigilance and readiness to evade a snake strike. If this is true, (1) squirrels should evade snake strikes more often when tail-flagging and (2) snakes should strike less often at tail-flagging squirrels. We present a device to squirrels that simulates a snake strike to test prediction 1(see images below), and we use Robosquirrel to test prediction 2. These experiments may sound simple, but working with wild animals can be unpredictable and frustrating (because they do not cooperate with you). It will likely take all summer to collect a large enough sample size to test our hypothesis.
Screen shots from a trial with the strike simulating device. The focal squirrel is circled in red in the upper shot. At 0.00 seconds, the spring within the device (indicated by the yellow arrow) has not been released. By 0.58 seconds, the spring has been released and the squirrel has evaded it.
In addition to performing the abovementioned field experiments, we radiotrack 20 wild rattlesnakes each day. Since snakes are secretive and elusive creatures, we would not be able to understand how they interact with squirrels without knowing where they are at all times. We often catch glimpses of interesting behaviors because we track them so often. Please enjoy the video below that my intern, Mike, made showing the radio-tracking process and a great observation we made on our first day out in the field.