Want to design a perfect robot? Study squirrels

By lucia f. jacobs nathaniel hunt and robert j. full 6 minute Learn

Tree squirrels are the Olympic divers of the rodent world, leaping gracefully amongst branches and constructions excessive above the bottom. And as with human divers, a squirrel’s success on this competitors requires each bodily power and psychological adaptability.

The Jacobs lab research cognition in free-ranging fox squirrels on the Berkeley campus. Two species–the jap grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)–thrive on campus landscapes and are keen members in our behavioral experiments. They’re additionally masters in two- and three-dimensional spatial orientation–utilizing sensory cues to transfer by area.


In a newly published study, we present that squirrels leap and land with out falling by making trade-offs between the gap they’ve to cowl and the springiness of their takeoff perch. This analysis gives new insights into the roles of decision-making, studying and habits in difficult environments that we’re sharing with researchers of human motion and with engineers. At current, there isn’t any robotic as agile as a squirrel, and none that may be taught or make choices about dynamic duties in complicated environments–however our analysis suggests the sorts of skills that such robots would want.

Considering on the go

Whereas a squirrel’s life might look easy to human observers–climb, eat, sleep, repeat–it entails finely tuned cognitive abilities. Squirrels are specialised seed dispersers: They harvest their winter’s provide of nuts and acorns throughout a six- to eight-week span within the fall, bury every nut individually and rely on spatial memory to retrieve them, generally months later.

Going airborne

Our new examine introduced collectively squirrel psychologists and comparative biomechanists to ask whether or not squirrels’ cognitive decision-making extends to dynamic modifications in locomotion–the well-known squirrel leap. How do squirrels’ perceived capabilities of their our bodies and their guesses in regards to the stability of the setting form their choices about motion?

Robert Full from the PolyPEDAL Laboratory is famend for research that extract basic design rules by experiments on locomotion in species with distinctive specializations for motion, from crabs to cockroaches to leaping lizards. Graduate college students Nathaniel Hunt, who’s skilled in biomechanics, and Judy Jinn, skilled in animal cognition, took on the problem of assessing how a leaping squirrel might reply to sudden modifications within the location and suppleness of experimental branches.

To review this query in wild squirrels, we designed a magnetic climbing wall that might be mounted on wheels and rolled out to the well-known Berkeley eucalyptus grove to meet the squirrels on their very own turf. We introduced high-speed cameras and peanuts for persuading squirrels to patiently wait for his or her activate the wall.

Our objective was to persuade squirrels to take off from a versatile springboard connected to the climbing wall and soar to a mounted perch protruding from the wall that held a shelled walnut reward. And as soon as once more, squirrels stunned us with their acrobatics and innovation.

By rising the springiness of the springboard and the gap between it and the objective, we might simulate the problem a squirrel faces because it races by tree branches that fluctuate in measurement, form and suppleness. Squirrels leaping throughout a hole should determine the place to take off primarily based on a trade-off between department flexibility and the dimensions of the hole.


We discovered that squirrels ran farther alongside a stiff department, so they’d a shorter, simpler soar. In distinction, they took off with simply a few steps from versatile branches, risking a longer leap.

Utilizing three branches differing in flexibility, we guessed the place of their takeoff by assuming equal threat for leaping from an unstable department and soar distance. We have been mistaken: Our mannequin confirmed that squirrels cared six occasions extra about a secure takeoff place than how far they’d to soar.

Subsequent we had squirrels leap from a very stiff platform. Unbeknownst to the squirrels, we then substituted an identical-looking platform that was 3 times extra versatile. From our high-speed video, we calculated how distant the middle of the squirrel’s physique was from the touchdown perch. This allowed us to to decide the touchdown error – how far the middle of the squirrel’s physique landed from the objective perch. Squirrels shortly discovered to soar from the very flexible department that they anticipated to be stiff and will stick the touchdown in simply 5 tries.

After we raised the ante nonetheless additional by elevating the peak and rising the gap to the objective perch, the squirrels stunned us. They immediately adopted a novel resolution: parkour, actually bouncing off the climbing wall to modify their velocity and achieve a sleek touchdown. As soon as extra, we found the exceptional agility that enables squirrels to evade predators in certainly one of nature’s most difficult environments, the tree cover.

Thousands and thousands of individuals have watched squirrels resolve and raid “squirrel-proof” hen feeders, both reside of their yard or in documentaries and viral videos. Like Olympic divers, squirrels should be versatile each bodily and cognitively to succeed, making fast error corrections on the fly and innovating new strikes.

With the funding this mission attracted, now we have joined a group of roboticists, neuroscientists, materials scientists and mathematicians to extract design rules from squirrel leaps and landings. Our group is even searching for insights into mind operate by learning leap planning in lab rats.

Our evaluation of squirrels’ exceptional feats can assist us perceive how to assist people who’ve strolling or greedy impairments. Furthermore, with our interdisciplinary group of biologists and engineers, we are trying to create new supplies for essentially the most clever, agile robotic ever constructed–one that may help in search-and-rescue efforts and quickly detect catastrophic environmental hazards, reminiscent of poisonous chemical releases.