Riled Rodents by Richard Cowen

I read academic science journals because it's my job. And often it's a chore to wade through them and then turn them into plain English for my students. But every now and then there's a nugget that I can polish up and share with the whole community. In this case it's the whole Winters community.

There are a lot of rodents in the world. Once upon a time I didn't like any of them, until we had kids. Then the kids wanted hamsters and rats. My opinion of hamsters changed a lot when our hamster escaped from her cage and disappeared. About a week later we found her the length of the house away, in a nest made of socks, supplied with hamster food brought cheekful by cheekful from the cage and stashed. Then the rats turned out to be clever and full of character too. So I am a rodent fan from way back. But that's prejudice, not science.

For a lot of people, rodents are pests that breed like mad, and produce lots of fuzzy babies that grow up to be food for cats and snakes and hawks and owls. And that seems to be the only useful ecological function of rodents. But now things have changed. Science has given us an entirely unexpected view into the rodent world.

It turns out that there are killer ground squirrels. And what they kill is rattlesnakes. A gang of ground squirrels will surround a rattlesnake and yell at it. Then they kick sand in its face. A gang of ground squirrels can kick so much dirt that they can almost bury a rattler. And then they will run up to the rattlesnake and nibble it to death.

Of course, ground squirrels kill rattlers because it's good for ground squirrels (almost half of baby ground squirrels are eaten by rattlesnakes). But they do humans a favor in the process. So where do these heroic creatures live? The research I was reading was done by biologists from UC Davis, and they found that the meanest killer ground squirrels live right here in Winters! So we don't just have an Earthquake Festival and a newspaper publisher who rides a Harley. Our city has the meanest rattlesnake-killing ground squirrels on the planet! Humans wouldn't dare to gang up, unarmed and unprotected, against a giant venomous snake that could eat them in two gulps. They'd send for a knight in armor or a bazooka. But a Winters ground squirrel can take a rattlesnake bite full in the face and come up laughing. It can survive a dose of rattler venom that would kill a human. Ground squirrels from other places just don't have what it takes. Shasta ground squirrels curl right up and die. Winters ground squirrels aren't just hairy heroes. They are smart and sneaky too. There's a reason why they tease the rattlers into rattling. The squirrels can tell from the sound whether the rattler that's half-hidden in the grass is big and warm and fast and dangerous, or whether it's small and cold and just right for beating up on. Now all this is fun science. But maybe there's something in it for us. Just think what the bragging rights could do for us if we play it right. To begin with, our city slogan needs a make-over. "The Gateway to Monticello Dam" doesn't compare with "Killer Ground Squirrel Capital of the World!" We could have City Mascots. Chip and Dale, make way for Chop and Tail! How about Billy and Martin? (if anyone else remembers the feisty manager of the Oakland A's who used to kick sand on umpires' shoes.)

We could have a Killer Ground Squirrel Festival and a Ground Squirrel Queen with big shiny teeth. We could sell cute cuddly little killer ground squirrel toys, and T-shirts with rattlers on them, saying "Snake bitten in Winters." And we could name the new high school sports teams the Killer Ground Squirrels and give the cheerleaders little fluffy tails to shake.

I'd be prepared to bet that no-one has yet registered www.killergroundsquirrel.com, which will be our gateway to world fame (and fortune). All this puts us so far ahead of Davis, whose biological heritage seems to consist of toads who can't even find the toad tunnels the city built for them. Disney or Dreamworks won't go to Davis to film an epic on lost toads, but they could easily turn up in Winters to film our little all-stars.

It wouldn't surprise me one bit to turn on ABC one evening and see Regis Philbin asking: "And now for one million dollars! Where in the world will you find killer ground squirrels?" And only you and I will know the answer!

Winters could start up a whole new pesticide-free organic agribusiness, trapping the ferocious little beasts and shipping them out by the truckload to communities with rattlesnake worry. I'd cheerfully volunteer my place, which is riddled with the burrows of the fearless fertile furries.

Whether we make a lot of money or not, no-one can take away our new pride in our city and its famous furry inhabitants. Everywhere we go, we can spread the word. All around us we have the world capitals for onions, garlic, artichokes, and so on: toxic vegetables, all of them. Winters has world champions we can really boast about: hard-working, brave, clever, and cute. Their fame rests on what they are and what they do, not just because we happen to grow them.

Maybe, like me, you've always wanted to live in the world capital of something. Now you do. Aren't we special? Isn't science wonderful?

Winters Express, June 15, 2000