Hop to it

Video: Leaping squirrels could help us build more agile robots

Video by Lawrence Wang, UC Berkeley

Nate Hunt, UC Berkeley

If you’ve ever watched squirrels jump through trees, you’ll notice they’re remarkably good at not falling.

Giphy

They’re experts at making split-second decisions as they tear through canopies and grab onto man-made obstacles — a skill that recently inspired scientists to learn more about how they do it.

A team of researchers from the University of California Berkley observed wild fox squirrels as they participated in a number of trials to test their balance, leaping, and landing strategies.

Their findings were published on August 5 in the journal Science.

Photography by Alexandra Rudge/Moment/Getty Images
The squirrels had to launch themselves off of rods with varying stiffness and traverse gaps of different lengths.Science

Watch these squirrels decide how to navigate their leaps:

Shutterstock

In slow motion, you can almost see this squirrel do mental math while it decides where it’s best to jump off the bendy rod.Video by Nate Hunt, UC Berkeley
This squirrel takes a balanced leap off a rod and pushes itself upward once it reaches a platform in the wall.Video by Nate Hunt, UC Berkeley

COPYRIGHT SCIENCE 2021.

As conditions changed, the squirrels had to adjust their launch and landing strategies to make sure they reached their target.

Video by Nate Hunt, UC Berkeley

Sometimes, if the squirrels felt they wouldn’t have enough momentum to make a jump, they’d choose to parkour off walls instead.

Donald Iain Smith/Photodisc/Getty Images

Not only is it fascinating to break down their tactics, but the craftiness of these common mammals could even help inspire the next generation of agile robots, researchers say.

“If we try to understand how squirrels (leap), then we may discover general principles of high-performance locomotion in the canopy and other complex terrains that apply to the movements of other animals and robots.”

Nathaniel Hunt, study coauthor and biomechanics professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha

Photography by Alexandra Rudge/Moment/Getty Images

Video by Lawrence Wang, UC Berkeley

Maybe someday we’ll have machines that leap through trees.

Read more stories about animals here.

Stephanie Starr / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images