UC Berkeley researchers study squirrels leaping to challenge of innovation

Photo of squirrel in tree
Judy Jinn/Courtesy
Studying squirrel's very plastic brains, which allow them to encode space differently depending on season, may lead to innovation in robots and therapeutics for brain degeneration.

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UC Berkeley researchers analyzed the agility and learning curves of the fox squirrels that frequent campus’s Eucalyptus Grove and observed how those traits could be applied to engineering efforts.

The team investigated what it calls cognitive biomechanics, the integration of mental and physical abilities to explain capabilities in squirrels that allow them to make rapid movements based on their environment, according to campus professor of psychology Lucia Jacobs, who has studied squirrels for 40 years.

“For a squirrel, this is critical,” said Robert Full, campus professor of integrative biology and one of the study’s researchers. “If they can’t get away from the hawk that’s dive-bombing them in the trees by jumping branch to branch and soaring in the air, they may not survive.”

In the study, high-speed cameras documented squirrels tasked with the goal of reaching peanuts on a landing platform. The squirrels calculated the movements necessary to launch from perches varying in flexibility that were arranged on a magnetic wall, according to Full.

Not a single squirrel fell during the hundreds of assorted trials, Full said. Each devised way to safely arrive on the other side; when perches were moved far apart, squirrels would repel off of the magnet board after an initial leap. The squirrels could reduce their errors to stick a landing after a maximum of five trials.

“Olympic gymnasts are amazing,” Full said. “They practice a huge number of times on surfaces that they know exactly what they’re like. Still, you can see how hard it is to make a move.”

Depending on the stability of the starting branch, a squirrel would change its launch point, velocity and decision to use parkour, according to Jacobs.

Jacobs’s prior work indicated that squirrels, who have very plastic brains, encode spaces differently in correlation with seasonal changes. This cognitive development is most evident in the hippocampus, the brain area damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. When squirrels cache their nuts, the hippocampus increases in volume, Jacobs added.

“We need to look at wild species to understand how plastic a brain can be,” Jacobs said. “This might lead to therapeutics for brain degeneration.”

As part of a multiuniversity effort, the researchers are developing a search and rescue robot that would respond quickly to scenarios such as environmental fires or explosions, according to Full.

By studying squirrels, scientists can recognize how learned experiences can be translated to innovating approaches to particular routes, Full noted.

The fundamental question, Full explained, is how decisive movements are based on a perception of the human body’s capabilities and its physical interactions with the environment.

“No robot can do things like this,” Full said. “We want some hints from the squirrels on how those decisions are made.”

Contact Lauren Huang at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @Laurenhuang72.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lucia Jacobs has studied squirrels for four years. In fact, Jacobs has studied squirrels for 40 years.