'Robosquirrel': Facts from Researchers

Information from San Diego State University and UC Davis about NSF Grant

This project has sparked curiosity and excitement, but unfortunately has also been subject to misinformation on the web. Please see the quick facts below to understand more about our goals and funding. We also encourage you to learn more about the science behind our project at our full project website:

Predator-Prey Communication Website

We appreciate the National Science Foundation supporting our goals of training more science and engineering students for the workforce, and producing new scientific results that help to better understand the world around us.

Project Title:

Understanding predator-prey signaling interactions: the dynamics of antisnake displays in ground squirrels and kangaroo rats. (PI: Clark, SDSU Co-PI: Joshi, UCD)

Aim: The project is a basic biology study of predator-prey behavior in nature. 

Project Details: Please click below for more details about our project.

Project Goals      Funding & Costs     Mechanical Models

Quick Facts:

Percentage of Grant Funds Used to Support Biology and Engineering Students1:

~70 %


Click here for more information.

Number of  Undergraduate and Graduate Science and Engineering Students Supported:


partially or fully, from a total grant of $97,500 avg. per year for 4 years.


Parts and Equipment Budget for Variety of Mechanical Models ("Robosquirrels")

3.5 %

($13,700 total over 4 years, $3,425 average per year)

Click here to read why we use mechanical models in biology.

Peer-reviewed scientific journals that have published new results from this project:

Proceedings of the Royal Society2

Animal Behavior3


IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine5

Popular press articles about the project:

Wall Street Journal, December 20126

KPBS, July 20127

Science Now, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)8


Percent of USA GDP Spent on All Basic Science Research9:

1/2 of 1%

USA's world ranking in "Proportion of Undergraduates Receiving Degrees in Science or Engineering"10:



1. Either directly or through grant funds budgeted for general university resources (called indirect costs, click here for more information).

2. Barbour MA, Clark RW. 2012. Ground squirrel tail-flag displays alter both predatory strike and ambush site selection behaviours of rattlesnakes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences, online early.

3. Clark RW, Tangco S, Barbour MA. 2012. Field recordings reveal factors that influence predatory strike success of free-ranging rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp.). Animal Behaviour 84:183-190.

4. Barbour MA, Clark RW. 2012. Diel cycles in chemosensory behavior of free-ranging rattlesnakes lying in wait for prey. Ethology 118:480-488.

5. S. Joshi , R. Johnson, A. Rundus, R.W. Clark, M. Barbour, &  D.H. Owings, Robotic squirrel models for the study of squirrel-rattlesnake interaction in laboratory and natural settings, IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, Vol. 18, No.4, December, 2011, pp. 59-68.

6. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324020804578151583449719160.html

7. http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/jul/03/robot-helps-tell-epic-story-snakes-and-squirrels/

8. http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/07/tail-shakes-scare-snakes.html?ref=hp

9. J. Kennedy, The Sources and Uses of U.S. Science Funding, The New Atlantis, Number 36, Summer 2012, pp. 3-22., http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-sources-and-uses-of-us-science-funding

10. The National Academies of Sciences USA, Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited, 2010: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12999&page=R1


Our Project Goals: (Click Here to Return to Top)

Our project uses a number of approaches to examine the behavioral and physiological adaptations that prey (squirrels) and predators (rattlesnakes) evolve in response to each other. The process of adaptation and counter-adaptation that shapes squirrels and snakes, called "antagonistic co-evolution", is the same evolutionary force that shapes hosts and parasites; plants and herbivores; pathogens and those afflicted by disease. We are studying behavioral interactions between several different species of rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus) and some of the small mammals that they kill and eat.  In particular, we are currently focusing on California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi) and desert kangaroo rats (Dipodoyms deserti).  These two small mammals have both evolved an elaborate series of signals and displays that they use to deter rattlesnakes.  We are fundamentally interested in how, exactly, a small mammal can ward off a rattlesnake simply by displaying toward it. Our  biology results from this grant have been published in leading scientific journals, including the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Animal Behavior, Ethology, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Please read more about our project at our full project web site: Predator-Prey Communication Website.

Our Funding and Costs: (Click Here to Return to Top)

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the major federal institution that funds basic research. This Behavioral Systems branch of NSF that funded our work is tasked with understanding the development, mechanisms, and evolution of animal behavior. NSF has extremely rigorous merit review criteria for funding research, with several scientists around the country reviewing each proposal. Typically only about 10% of proposals to any given group at NSF get funded.

We were awarded $390,000 for a 4-year study by the National Science Foundation in 2010. Our universities (like all US universities),  take about 1/3 of the funds from all federally-funded projects to maintain buildings, provide student scholarships for needy students, etc. (called "indirect cost"). Therefore, we get to spend the other $260,000 over four years ($65,000 per year) for directly supporting students and for covering research costs. Most of our funds go towards supporting biology and engineering students who help conduct research on the project, so they can learn how to become biologists and engineers in the workforce. Counting both "direct" and "indirect" budget categories from our NSF grant, nearly 70% is used to train and support students. Thus far, about 34 students have received training in our project. Biology students learn how to create a scientific experiment, how to collect data, and how to perform statistical analysis. The engineers learn how to design and manufacture parts, build electrical circuits, and program microcontrollers. Some of our funds also go towards paying the tuition and salary of graduate students on the project. This is the basic way we train and fund graduate students in the United States, regardless of the project or scientific field. Thus, basic research funds from NSF allow us not only to learn more about how the natural world around us works, but also to train and educate the next generation of scientists and engineers.  Please read more about our project at our full project web site: Predator-Prey Communication Website.

Our Mechanical Models: (Click Here to Return to Top)

With the falling prices of computers, sensors, and motors, we can perform controlled biology experiments in new ways that could not be done in the past (biorobotics).  With biorobotics, we can let an animal interact with our mechanical animal models in precisely controlled ways. This way, we can learn how real animals communicate with each other by performing precise experiments in the wild. These kinds of experiments would be difficult if not impossible, to perform with real animals, as we can not direct wild animals to do exactly what we want at a given time.

Biorobotics is a new tool in our biology science arsenal, but itís not a very expensive one.  We are not building a "$325,000 Robosquirrel" :) Our total robotics-technology parts and supplies budget for the entire 4-year study is $13,700. With this budget, we build different mechanical models for different experiments and we place small computers in each of them to collect data and control the models.  We also build mechanical parts that help us deploy the robot under different field conditions (e.g. tracks and platforms).  Please read more about our project at our full project web site: Predator-Prey Communication Website.