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We used peanuts and a climbing wall to learn how squirrels judge their leaps so successfully – and how their skills could inspire more nimble robots

How do they stick their landings? Alex Turton via Getty Images

We used peanuts and a climbing wall to learn how squirrels judge their leaps so successfully – and how their skills could inspire more nimble robots

How do they stick their landings? Alex Turton via Getty Images

We used peanuts and a climbing wall to learn how squirrels judge their leaps so successfully – and how their skills could inspire more nimble robots

How do they stick their landings? Alex Turton via Getty Images

We used peanuts and a climbing wall to learn how squirrels judge their leaps so successfully – and how their skills could inspire more nimble robots

How do they stick their landings? Alex Turton via Getty Images

Tree squirrels are the Olympic divers of the rodent world, leaping gracefully among branches and structures high above the ground.

How do they stick their landings? Alex Turton via Getty Images

Lucia F. Jacobs, University of California, Berkeley; Nathaniel Hunt, University of Nebraska Omaha, and Robert J. Full, University of California, Berkeley

Tree squirrels are the Olympic divers of the rodent world, leaping gracefully among branches and structures high above the ground. And as with human divers, a squirrel’s success in this competition requires both physical strength and mental adaptability.

The Jacobs lab studies cognition in free-ranging fox squirrels on the Berkeley campus. Two species – the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) – thrive on campus landscapes and are willing participants in our behavioral experiments. They are also masters in two- and three-dimensional spatial orientation – using sensory cues to move through space.

Squirrel perches in a tree.

Fox squirrel in eucalyptus grove on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Judy Jinn, CC BY-ND

In a newly published study, we show that squirrels leap and land without falling by making trade-offs between the distance they have to cover and the springiness of their takeoff perch. This research provides new insights into the roles of decision-making, learning and behavior in challenging environments that we are sharing with researchers of human movement and with engineers. At present, there is no robot as agile as a squirrel, and none that can learn or make decisions about dynamic tasks in complex environments – but our research suggests the kinds of abilities that such robots would need.

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