Former NASA Engineer Faces Toughest Challenge Yet: Squirrels
“This was the exact moment I realized I just might be outmatched here.”
Few people can outsmart a former NASA and Apple engineer, but what about animals? This is what happens when brilliant minds from two different worlds go head-to-head.
Quarantine Leads to Conflict
Engineer Mark Rober put a bird feeder into his backyard to pass the time during quarantine, and it soon became overrun by squirrels. He tried a few different “squirrel-proof” feeders with impressive features, but the squirrels were more impressive. Rober realized he was dealing with professionals and kicked into full gear.
To the Drawing Board
He and his friend built an obstacle course specifically for squirrels, and this wasn’t a simple backyard birdhouse. As true scientists, they tested everything, and once the course was finished — complete with bridges, catapults, microcontrollers, and pistons — it was go time.
Game, Set, Match
As the squirrels explored Rober’s contraption, just like Rober, they experimented and used trial and error to master each step, and their brains weren’t the only things on full display.
Although Rober planted booby traps like (harmless) catapults that launched the squirrels off course, slow-mo video revealed that life in the trees has made them masters of physics.
Just milliseconds after launch, the squirrels calculated the what, the where, and the how. They knew what was happening, where their landing spot would be, and how they should move their bodies to land safely. Like a beautiful ice skater nailing their routine, during a high fall the squirrel angles its body to control velocity and angular momentum, letting it pirouette through the air and land perfectly where intended (see video). It tucks its arms, angles its tail, and bravo! Sticks the landing and lives to see another day.
“Life Finds a Way”
Scientists and engineers like Rober can certainly use their training and strong minds to build incredible machines, but as Dr. Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park” said, “life finds a way.” These scientists are no match for nature. As the human world changes around us, the natural world evolves with it, and this evolution and adaptation goes on in our backyard without many of us noticing. As Rober put it, “It’s also made me realize that even amongst the structures and pavement and powerlines how interesting nature can be in a single suburban backyard if you just really stop to look.”
UPDATE: A year later, Rober faced the squirrels again with an new course:
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