Squirrels use snake scent

Dec 19, 2007
Squirrels use snake scent
Squirrels use shed snake skins to mask their scent from predators, a UC Davis researcher has found. (Barbara Clucas/UC Davis photo)

California ground squirrels and rock squirrels chew up rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur to mask their scent from predators, according to a new study by researchers at UC Davis.

Barbara Clucas, a graduate student in animal behavior at UC Davis, observed ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) and rock squirrels (Spermophilus variegates) applying snake scent to themselves by picking up pieces of shed snakeskin, chewing it and then licking their fur.

Adult female squirrels and juveniles apply snake scent more often than adult males, which are less vulnerable to predation by snakes, Clucas said. The scent probably helps to mask the squirrel's own scent, especially when the animals are asleep in their burrows at night, or to persuade a snake that another snake is in the burrow.

The squirrels are not limited to the use of shed snake skins, said Donald Owings, a professor of psychology at UC Davis who is Clucas' adviser and an author on the paper. They also pick up snake odor from soil and other surfaces on which snakes have been resting, and use that to apply scent. Other rodents have been observed using similar behavior.

Snake-scent application is one of a remarkable package of defenses that squirrels use against rattlesnakes, Owings said. In earlier work, Owings' lab has found that squirrels can: heat up their tails to send a warning signal to rattlesnakes, which can "see" in the infrared; assess how dangerous a particular snake is, based on the sound of its rattle; and display assertive behavior against snakes to deter attacks. In addition, work by Owings' colleague, psychology professor Richard Coss, has demonstrated that these squirrels have evolved resistance to snake venom.

"It's a nice example of the opportunism of animals," Owings said. "They're turning the tables on the snake."

The other authors on the paper, which was published Nov. 28 in the journal Animal Behavior, are Matthew Rowe, Sam Houston State University, Texas, and Patricia Arrowood at New Mexico State University.

Source: University of California - Davis

Explore further: Lush conditions fuel Colorado increase in rabbit fever

Related Stories

Blacklist warnings spread on websites in North Korea

1 hour ago

North Korea, already one of the least-wired places in the world, appears to be cracking down on the use of the Internet by even the small number of foreigners who can access it with relative freedom by blacklisting ...

'Map of life' predicts ET. (So where is he?)

3 hours ago

Extra-terrestrials that resemble humans should have evolved on other, Earth-like planets, making it increasingly paradoxical that we still appear to be alone in the universe, the author of a new study on ...

Baby seals that practice in pools make better divers

3 hours ago

Being able to dive is what matters most for seal pups, but how do they learn to do it? Grey seal pups that can play in pools may have better diving skills once they make the move to the sea, and this could ...

Recommended for you

The role of species competition in biodiversity

38 minutes ago

(Phys.org)—Over long spans, biodiversity is a fluid and shifting balance of species and influences. Species diversification occurs in response to a host of complex factors, both biotic and abiotic, and ...

Why do strawberries taste so good?

1 hour ago

Each year, spectators at the Wimbledon tennis tournament get through a whopping 30 tons of strawberries in the course of a summer fortnight. It is no wonder that the association between Wimbledon and strawberries ...

C. difficile needs iron, but too much is hazardous

1 hour ago

Those bacteria that require iron walk a tightrope. Iron is essential for their growth, but too much iron can damage DNA and enzymes through oxidation. Therefore, bacteria have machinery to maintain their ...

Researchers discover strong break on cell division

1 hour ago

The protein complex SWI/SNF that loosens tightly wrapped up DNA is also a strong inhibitor of cell division, at the time that cells take on specialized functions. Professor Sander van den Heuvel and PhD researcher ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.