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: From dandruff to deep sea vents, an ecologically hyper-diverse fungus

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Here's how you find out who shot down MH17

5 minutes ago

More than a month has passed since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed with the loss of all 298 lives on board. But despite the disturbances at the crash site near the small town of Grabovo, near Donetsk ...

Developers explore game experience for the blind

20 minutes ago

Wait, researchers are talking about a video game for the blind? Come again? Not impossible. Game designers, reports the BBC, have been working on bringing the game experience to the blind and those with vision ...

Apple's freshly sliced shares climb

1 hour ago

Freshly split Apple shares closed at a high on Tuesday, with investors evidently betting the California company will debut popular new gadgets, perhaps a smart watch and an iPhone 6.

France fights back Asian hornet invader

2 hours ago

They slipped into southwest France 10 years ago in a pottery shipment from China and have since invaded more than half the country, which is fighting back with drones, poisoned rods and even chickens.

Recommended for you

Of bees, mites, and viruses

14 hours ago

Honeybee colonies are dying at alarming rates worldwide. A variety of factors have been proposed to explain their decline, but the exact cause—and how bees can be saved—remains unclear. An article published on August ...

User comments : 0