For Kangaroo Rat Conservation: Keep Enemies Close

Kangaroo Rat
For the kangaroo rat, old neighbors make good neighbors. Even if they never really got along. Photo: Ken Hackman,

Stephens’ kangaroo rats are loners. For most of the year, they live all alone in spacious burrows and their concept of neighborly is more Mr. Wilson than Mr. Rogers. These rodents are highly territorial and competition between them can be fierce.


So you can imagine the surprise of researchers at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research when they discovered that transplanting Stephens’ kangaroo rats along with their neighbors significantly improved their chances of survival.


Keeping old ties, even among enemies, allowed relocated kangaroo rats to flourish in their new home: getting settled faster to focus on foraging, burrowing, finding a mate, and having more babies. Meanwhile, kangaroo rats transplanted among strangers had to search longer for a home and then duke it out with the new neighbors to establish themselves.


The finding is helpful information for conservationists. Stephens’ kangaroo rats live in sparse grassland and require dirt patches for activities such as dust-bathing and foot-thumping (they thump to communicate—mostly messages like “get off my property” or the occasional “hello, pretty lady.”) Unfortunately, their habitat has been significantly altered by humans, who are generally pro-lawn and anti-rodent-friendly-dust-patch. As Debra Shier, who co-wrote this study, explained to Science News, the kangaroo rat “has the same taste in real estate as a lot of California developers.”


This means relocation is a necessary conservation strategy. Thanks to Shier and co-researcher Ronald Swaisgood, moving day may go a little smoother for this endemic and endangered species.

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