Squirrels Use "Snake Perfume" to Fool Predators

Sara Goudarzi
for National Geographic News
December 21, 2007

To mask their odor from rattlesnakes, California ground squirrels and rock squirrels chew on sloughed-off snake skin and smear it on their fur, according to a new study.

The act most likely persuades the predators that another snake, not a squirrel, is in the area.

"To our knowledge this is the first case where [this idea] has been tested systematically and shown to have an anti-predator function—protecting the squirrel from rattlesnake predation," said study lead author Barbara Clucas.

Clucas, a graduate student in animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, said she first noted this behavior in 2002.

She saw rock squirrels at Caballo Lake State Park in New Mexico licking themselves to apply chewed snake skin to their flanks, tails, and rear ends, which gave them the pungent, musky scent of a rattlesnake.

In 2003 she saw California ground squirrels at Lake Solano County Park in California doing the same thing. (See a squirrel photo gallery.)

Her team's study of the squirrels appeared in the November issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.

Eau de Rattlesnake

Rattlers and other snakes usually prey on baby squirrels, because the adults have proteins in their blood that make them immune to snake venom.

Pups, on the other hand, aren't big enough to resist the poison.

Clucas and colleagues therefore think that adult female and juvenile squirrels spend more time applying snake scent to their bodies.

"Adult females actively protect their pups … and share their burrows with juveniles," Clucas said.

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