Squirrels aren’t the cowardly run-and-hide creatures some people take them for. When faced with predators, they can and do fight back. Scientists studying this behavior noticed something odd, and potentially useful. So what the hell does this have to do with Dune? Read and see.

Ground squirrels, Spermophilus beecheyi, don’t always have the ability to run up a tree when threatened. Sometimes they choose not to run at all. These little guys go on the offensive, throwing whatever they can get their hands on at the potential predator. It’s not inborn; scientists who studied the behavior noted that it took some time for lab-born squirrels to start throwing things when confronted in their enclosure, by a gopher snake, a rattlesnake, or a cat.

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Wild-caught squirrels didn’t need to reach a certain age before they knew to fight back against snakes. They were tossing things at both kinds of snake, and seemed no more worried about the rattlesnake than the gopher snake. (I suppose if either snake can kill and eat you, what does it matter if one if them does it with poison?)

But scientists noticed an interesting variation in the behavior of wild caught squirrels. The researchers had taken these ground squirrels from two types of locations. One type of location was rife with snakes, the other type of location had relatively few snakes. The scientists tracked the squirrels’ physical arousal (“arousal” here meaning level of physical agitation, not sexual arousal), and found that while both types of squirrels were on the alert when a snake was around, the ones that had been taken from sites with a lot of snakes were far less physically aroused than the ones that had little experience with snakes.

Both knew that snakes were a threat, and the ones that had been raised with snakes had probably seen one or two comrades get eaten. Why were they less afraid? The scientists speculate that they were less physically agitated because time spent being afraid of snakes was time that couldn’t be spent figuring out tactical ways to fight or avoid snakes. It’s possible that the squirrels adapted their physical fear response to deal with a real problem. Dune was right. Fear is the mind-killer. Even ground squirrels know it.

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[Source: Individual Variation in the Antisnake Response of California Ground Squirrels]

Image: Brocken Inaglory.