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California Ground Squirrels Use Heat To Threaten Rattlesnakes Adapted
from various sources, including the Nature News Service article, 7/16/04
by Michael Hopkins California ground squirrels look like cuddly,
defenseless things. But faced with hungry rattlesnakes, they broadcast
red-hot ire to the enemy by heating up their tails. The behavior, reported
at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society in Oaxaca, Mexico, is the
first deliberate animal signal known to be communicated via heat.
In the study, Aaron Rundus of the University of California, Davis, put
adult squirrels in cages with snakes and filmed the face-off with a
heat-sensitive infrared camera. When up against a rattlesnake, the
squirrels lashed their tails back and forth, held their tail hairs on end,
and emitted a distinct heat glow from their posterior appendage. But the
squirrels mustered no such heat response when paired with a gopher snake.
Rundus said the squirrels are warning rattlers in a language the snake can
understand. Rattlesnakes use heat sensitive organs on their snouts known
as pits to home in on prey. The squirrels can differentiate between
enemies and react accordingly, Rundus said, possibly to distract the
snakes from more vulnerable young.