Squirrels, Squirrels And Robosquirrels

If you stopped looking at your computer screen long enough to look out the window (i.e., the big blue room with the bright yellow light), you might notice that Silicon Valley is filled with squirrels. The common brown squirrel can be found everywhere. The black squirrel in Sunnyvale and Mountain View. (If you travel up to Placerville near Lake Tahoe, the grey squirrel can get as big as a football.) And in the eastern foothills of San Jose, the robosquirrel is the newest squirrel in the valley.

In a flash of fangs, the rattlesnake lunged, striking in less than a second. Its prey: a mechanical, remote-controlled squirrel, now with a pool [of] venom in its head.

“That was really exciting,” said ecology doctoral student Bree Putman. “The snake saw it as real prey.”

On a high-tech reserve in the rolling, pastoral hills east of San Jose, Putman and her adviser, San Diego State ecologist Rulon Clark, are using robosquirrel to understand the relationship between the predator and prey, which it turns out is “complicated.” That’s where robosquirrel comes in. Clark and Putman said that decoding their conversations, one robotic move at a time, could help explain how populations of the pesky critters naturally balance out.

I wasn’t aware that squirrels would confront a rattlesnake by going nose-to-nose and waving its tail, which confuses the rattlesnake as the squirrel’s heat signature becomes much larger, and was immune to snake venom until I read this article.

When I went into work on Black Friday —the day after Thanksgiving when most Americans are out shopping—in November 2008, the Fortune 500 campus along the Mountain View shoreline was eerily deserted without any vehicle traffic. As I took public transportation back then, I had to walk a mile from the bus stop. I noticed all the squirrels along the way and all the squirrels noticed me. If that wasn’t creepy enough, the city of Mountain View had to trap attacking squirrels in Cuesta Park in 2007. Turned out I wasn’t supposed to be at work and I later went shopping.

That experience became the basis for an unpublished short story about a call center support technician trapped in an office building with killer squirrels while his roommates are out shopping on Black Friday. I haven’t been able to sell the print rights since most editors don’t want a holiday-themed short story in their non-themed anthology, and its too long for many holiday-themed anthologies. I’m planning to do a final revision for publication as a short story ebook in October. Maybe the story will go from “man versus nature” with killer squirrels to “man versus technology” with killer robosquirrels.

If the military is developing ariel drones that look like small birds to spy from the sky, wouldn’t robosquirrels be the next technological leap in ground surveillance? Once that technology gets loose in the wilds, anything could happen.