Squirrels Beat Rattlesnakes by Heating Tails

Image Credit: Andrey Zharkikh

Body heat helps California ground squirrels defend themselves from rattlesnakes.

Even most humans wouldn’t want to come face to face with a rattlesnake – so imagine how terrifying an encounter with the ferocious reptile would be if you were only a tiny, defenseless squirrel.

Or not. As it turns out, California ground squirrels have a secret weapon when it comes to facing off against rattlesnakes: Their tails.

Scientists recently discovered that the California ground squirrels gather heat in their tails to fend off rattlesnakes. The defense mechanism is invisible to the human eye, but when the scientists tracked squirrels with an infrared camera, they found that the squirrels’ tails lit up with excess heat any time a rattlesnake was in the vicinity.

“One way squirrels regulate their body temperature is through their tails,” biologist Aaron Rundus told Fox News. “They dump heat to cool down by increasing blood flow through their tails, or reduce blood flow there to keep warm. So there’s already a system there where they can manipulate tail temperature.”

When the squirrels come into contact with rattlesnakes, they heat up their tails and wave them around as a way to look bigger and more imposing to the snakes. Even at night, when the snakes are unable to see the squirrels, they are able to feel the sensation of heat from the squirrels’ tails, and generally decide that the furry little critters may not make such great meals, after all.

We humans may enjoy our dinner hot, but as far as rattlesnakes are concerned, a too-high temperature is a major turn-off. Luckily for the savvy squirrels, those snakes will just have to slither on in search of other food.

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