Squirrels use parkour moves and are savvy to perform tricky landings | Smart News

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Almost all of a squirrel’s life is spent in a death-defying arboreal act where a miscalculated jump could spell disaster. To navigate their precarious daily rounds, squirrels perform quick and sophisticated mental calculations to perform landings on wobbly branches and even deploy maneuvers commonly seen in the sport of stunt free running. Parkour, reports Jonathan Lambert for Scientific news.

These are some of the findings of a new study, published this week in the journal Science, who examined in detail the biomechanics and decision-making behind the gymnastic lifestyle of fox squirrels.

“As a model organism for understanding the biological limits of balance and agility, I would say squirrels are second to none,” says study author Nathaniel Hunt, biomechanics researcher at the University. from Nebraska, in a declaration. “If we try to understand how squirrels do this, then we can discover the general principles of high performance locomotion in the canopy and other complex terrain that apply to the movements of other animals and robots.”

Researchers set up a series of experimental jumps in a eucalyptus grove at the University of California, Berkeley campus to closely observe how wild squirrels approached various jumps, reports James Gorman for the New York Times.

One of the parameters the researchers tested was how squirrels change their jumps based on the curvature of their launch pad and the distance they have to travel. If a branch was particularly fragile, the animals would initiate their jump earlier, even if the jump was relatively long. This is because, according to Scientific news, squirrels’ choices about when to jump were influenced about six times more by the flexibility of the branches than by distance.

“When they cross a gap, they decide where to take off based on a trade-off between the flexibility of the branch and the size of the gap they have to cross,” Hunt said in the release. “And when they encounter a branch with unprecedented mechanical properties, they learn to adjust their launch mechanics with a few jumps. This behavioral flexibility that adapts to the mechanics and geometry of the jump and landing structures is important for accurately jumping through a gap to land on a small target.

Despite all the variables the researchers threw at their bush-tailed study subjects, the squirrels never fell, according to the Times. Even when things didn’t quite go as planned, the squirrels were able to barely grab the landing branch with their front legs and swing their bodies up and down on their new perch.

When the team made the jumps more difficult by increasing the height of the landing above the squirrel launch point and increasing the distance of the jump, the rodents went into parkour mode, twisting their bodies into them. airs and leaping over the adjacent wall. Sometimes the squirrel’s parkour was aimed at speeding up to cover more distance and other times it allowed the jumper to slow down to land on the target. “It’s an additional checkpoint,” says Robert Full, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and lead author of the article. Scientific news.

The researchers also observed that the squirrels quickly improved in difficult jumps once they encountered them several times, although their first forays were not so graceful.

“Squirrels are used to making mistakes (jumps are split-second decisions after all), but they succeed because they are adept at correcting themselves on landings,” David Hu, biomechanic at Georgia Tech who did not participate in the study, says the Times by email.

“I think there is a moral in this for all of us,” Hu said. “Don’t worry too much about a false jump, as long as you can recover like a squirrel you’ll be fine.”


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