Squirrel Defense Mechanisms
by Ron Kurtus (revised 31 December 2017)
Squirrels have a wide range of predators. When attacked, a squirrel will choose whether to fight or flee, depending on the threat. They have numerous defense mechanisms to avoid a fight.
If a California ground squirrel is attacked by a rattlesnake, it may fight back using the unique mechanism of heating up its tail.
Questions you may have include:
- What predators threaten squirrels?
- What are some defense mechanisms?
- How do some squirrels use a heated tail?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Predators threaten squirrels
Squirrels have many predators including large snakes, weasels, coyotes, the red foxes, and raccoons. Also large birds such as hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls are notorious for swooping down and carrying off squirrels.
In the city, squirrels may be attacked by cats and dogs. Humans also hunt squirrels.
Squirrels have a variety of defense mechanisms and behaviors to ward off threats.
The coloring of the squirrel serves as a camouflage, especially when on the trunk of a tree. The squirrel will also quickly move to the opposite side of the trunk, so the predator does not knew it has moved up to a different location.
Southern flying squirrels can be found in southeastern Canada, the eastern United States, and Mexico. The flying squirrels were most active on nights of poor visibility, as an anti-predator defense mechanism.
Squirrels have the ability to turn their feet one hundred and eighty degrees, which allows it to quickly scurry up the nearest tree to escape.
A squirrel will flick its tail from side to side to distract a predator. When caught by a predator, the tail will actually break off, allowing the squirrel a chance to escape. This defense mechanism is also seen in lizards.
A California ground squirrel will utilize sounds from its major predator, the rattlesnake, as a defense mechanism. In other words, they are capable of discriminating rattling sounds from other other sounds.
In fact, the squirrel is able to assess the level of danger the rattlesnake represents from its sounds. Sometimes the squirrel will engage in sand-kicking to provoke the snake into rattling to get more information about the size and danger of the predator. This behavior is quite low in risk for the squirrel, while providing it with necessary information about the snake.
Special defense mechanism
If a California ground squirrel comes into proximity with a threatening rattlesnake, it will quickly run away. But if it is ambushed by the snake, it behavior changes to an aggressive fight to save its life.
Tail heats up
The squirrel will face the snake, flail its tail and kick up sand to show it is ready to defend itself. It may even attack the snake, trying to bite it. But it most interesting is a natural defensive mechanism useful only against animals such as a rattlesnake. This breed of squirrel's tail actually heats up during battle.
Rattlesnakes sense body heat
Rattlesnakes distinguish their prey by sensing infrared (IR) radiation emitted by body heat. The hot flailing tail gives off a signal that either confuses the snake or simulates the signal from another threatening animal. Scientists aren't sure what reason is, but in either case, the rattler will turn and slither away.
Only with rattlers
Interestingly enough, the squirrel's tail does not increase its temperature when attacked by other predators, such as a gopher snake. The behavior seems only intended for defense against rattlesnakes.
Squirrels have numerous predators, including weasels, snakes and humans. When attacked, a squirrel will use a defense mechanism to avoid a fight. If a California ground squirrel is attacked by a rattlesnake, it may fight back using the unique mechanism of heating up its tail.
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Resources and references
Science News - Squirrel Uses IR to Escape from Rattlesnake
California Ground Squirrel Control - Information from University of California-Davis
Squirrels - UC-Davis Wiki - Comment on squirrels losing tails as defense mechansim
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