Professor studies evolution of mammal defenses [VIDEO]

Stankowich and two students plan to build skunk robots to simulate predator responses to spray tactics.

Crystal Niebla, Assistant News Editor
February 17, 2014
Filed under News

Assistant professor of biological science Theodore Stankowich said he plans to continue studying mammal defense tactics through several methods, including robotic skunks.

“I’ll be probably working on skunks in the field — trapping them and their behavior, observing how they respond to predator models,” Stankowich said.

Through his studies, the assistant professor recently co-authored a paper on the evolution of defense tactics various mammals use against predators.

Stankowich worked with Tim Caro, a biologist at University of California, Davis, to publish the paper in the online journal, Evolution.

The paper — which includes data from a sample size of 181 different species of mammals from the order Carnivora, such as skunks, badgers and lions — found that several mammals have evolved with various defense strategies tailored to their ecology throughout the course of millions of years.

“Every mammal you can think of that is a very good meat-eater would be in that order,” Stankowich said.

Stankowich said that nocturnal mammals, like the skunk, are the most successful in fending off mammal predators, as they have evolved their defenses to attack large predators in “close-range” or “surprise attacks.”

“Several groups have evolved the ability to defend themselves with noxious spray defenses to varying degrees — skunks being the epitome of nastiness,” Stankowich said. “Whether it’s a mountain lion, wolf or coyote, mammals are very sensitive to foul odors.”

Stankowich said he and Caro also found that some mammals, such as skunks and polecats, can direct an anal gland secretion at a predator, whereas other species, like the meerkat, form social groups to protect themselves from bird predators that are active during the day.

“They can also mob a predator that’s attacking one of their group mates,” he said.  “So if attacks do occur, it’s nice to have friends around to defend you.”

Although mobbing a predator is a good defense tactic, it wouldn’t work on large mammals like lions, Stankowich said.  Such predators would probably “throw them around” and “chew them up,” he said.

To continue his studies, Stankowich said he will begin roughly four different field and behavioral projects to address the issue of coyote attacks on pets in the Seal Beach and Long Beach areas.

One of his projects, which involves robotic skunks, first requires that he catch a few skunks to observe their behavior. Stankowich said he will then use his observations to build two robotic skunks that will simulate the behaviors of their living counterparts.

The assistant professor has two students who will help him build the two skunks, which will be able to spray and respond to predators as skunks do.  One of the students will work on installing a dog-response into the robots while the other will work on the coyote-response, he said.

Stankowich said he also plans to work “with engineers to help teach predators not to attack pets by somehow taking advantage of their predatory habits.”

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