Nature Notes: Kangaroo Rats

By Kan Parthiban, Teaching Intern

What in the world is a kangaroo rat? Is it a kangaroo that's a rat? Or a rat that's a kangaroo? Neither!

They are small rodents similar to rats. Although they are not related to kangaroos at all, these animals are bipedal and hop like a kangaroo with their large hind legs, and they have a large tail much longer than their body and head combined. Kangaroo rats have small front legs that are used like hands to hold food.

Kangaroo rats have a life span of only about 2-5 years. Endemic to Northern California, kangaroo rats live in colonized underground burrows in semi-arid areas. These animals survive in the harshest California desert climates. Thus, kangaroo rats are water conservers and feed on seeds to get moisture.

Due to their high sensitivity to extreme temperatures, they reside in burrows. Their clever way of maintaining constant humidity and temperature in the burrows is to use soil to cover some of the exit/entrance holes during the day. In times of danger, kangaroo rats use their hind feet to create unique signals not unlike Morse code to warn their colonies.

Although kangaroo rats' top predators are snakes, foxes, owls, badgers, and coyotes, humans now threaten their existence. Due to rapid urbanization and agricultural development, the species' habitat loss prevents further growth. Over 95% of the kangaroo rats' habitat has been destroyed or displaced over time.

There are about twenty different subspecies of kangaroo rats; about six are on the endangered species list. There are currently several efforts underway to restore their habitats.

For example, in San Luis Obispo County and Kern County, vast amounts of land are strictly protected from agriculture use and this land is specifically designated for the growth of the kangaroo rat population. If this effort is successful, one day we will see the kangaroo rat species thrive.


Photo credit: John Roser/Arkive