Photo Credit: Gilles Gonthier via Compfight cc
We’ve all seen our pets employ methods that are uncannily similar to the sly, stealthy modus operandi of our favourite sleuths such as James Bond or Philip Marlowe in their attempt to help themselves to seconds. Maybe, from the interests of our own self-preservation, we shouldn’t have underestimated their ability to process the tips on display when we shared the couch with them for a couple of hours of block-busting fun.

But real animals as real spies?
Yes, we officially welcome you to the 21st century as reports come in from Canada that your humble, everyday Chipmunk has been equipped with state-of-the-art Russian espionage technology in the form of miniature microphones, oft-employed by spies. I always knew those North of the Border were in with the communists!

But quell your fears, the tech is not being used to further geopolitical skulduggery. The microphones have been strapped to chipmunks by a group of researchers in Canada to study the lives of Canada’s rodents. Or so we’re told (wink, wink).

Scientists in Quebec have fitted eastern Chipmunks in Quebec’s Green Mountains Nature Reserve with the world’s smallest digital recording device. The one-inch microphone has been attached on a collar and placed around the cute, striped rodents in order to study the ins and outs of their communication.

The spy microphone has superseded the static microphones originally used by researchers to pick up the constant chatter that typifies chipmunk communication. As one can imagine, the data yielded from amidst the action has been of incomparable quality, helping scientists better analyse and decode the minutiae of the speech.

The data has helped researchers from the University of Quebec shed light on the reasons behind the rodent’s distinct call. The observed differences in vocal signals are being correlated to the personality and behaviour of the rodents. One trait being specifically explored is “boldness”.

The microphones have yielded other fascinating and useful data on the animals’ heart-rates, used to study stressors in the environment; the whining of offspring which will assist researchers uncover how they take care of their young; and perhaps most curious of them all, how much scratching the chipmunks get up to, depending on the amount of parasites they have to deal with at any one time.

In order to yield more data, researchers expose the chipmunks to simulated threats. A tossed hat, for example, will be interpreted by the chipmunk as an aerial threat from an eagle. This means researchers can induce special calls chipmunks use when threatened with predation, including “chips” and “trills”. Scientists say it’s been a boon to collect unprecedented amounts of data due to collar’s access to the whole 24 hours in a chipmunk’s life. As one can imagine this gives a more nuanced view of the chipmunk’s interactions with territorial rivals and predators alike.

Future research is likely to look at how effective chipmunks are at spotting false alarms from their neighbours’ cries, an important skill to possess when trying to maintain efficient survival skills including the amassing of much-needed resources.