Kangaroo rats go high-tech – and help inform environmental policy

Photo by mariozama on Flickr

Photo by mariozama on Flickr

If you need a cute, unique posterchild for conservation, look no further than the kangaroo rat. Imagine a gerbil rendered in the anime style – huge eyes, disproportionate body, and super talents. Not only can it leap a meter or more in a single bound, it also has special adaptions for thriving in its desert habitat, including highly efficient kidneys and the ability to extract all the water it needs from the seeds it eats. They hop around on their hind legs like kangaroos, using their tails – which can be up to twice as long as their bodies – for balance. Freakish and adorable, what’s not to like?

Turns out that kangaroo rats are also a key component of the desert ecosystem. They clip grass like little lawnmowers and leave the clippings in circular rings surrounding their burrows so that the seeds can cure in the sun. These clippings act as mini-compost piles, enriching the soil beneath them. Their behavior also creates the preferred, low-profile habitat for other desert animals.

Photo by runneralan on Flickr

Now add this to their list of assets: because of their crucial role as a “keystone” species, they help scientists in the Carrizo Plain National Monument area make important land management decisions. To do this, researchers attempt to estimate the size and distribution of the kangaroo rat population. In the old days, they tried physically trapping the animals, or conducting aerial surveys. Neither of these methods was effective or cheap enough to make good management decisions.

Kangaroo rat burrows are visible from space

Kangaroo rat burrows are visible from space

Recently, The Nature Conservancy began working with researchers at the University of California – Berkeley to count kangaroo rat populations using satellite data. The new technology allows them to create accurate, reproducible maps of kangaroo rat “precincts”, taking advantage of the fact that the nearly perfect circles of clippings the animals create are visible from the air. With the better data, scientists can more closely monitor environmental changes through the kangaroo rat population.

Kangaroo rats aren’t the only species going high tech – sheep are sustainably grazing in Argentina with the help of satellite imagery, and weeds can’t hide from satellite sensing in Hells Canyon.

Before I learned about the kangaroo rats, I hadn’t realized how cool “the other Nature” – nature.org – is. They’re doing a lot of interesting things not just in conservation, but also in science education, outreach, and policy. As the satellite example shows, they also value technology. So, of course, they have a blog. :) Check them out!

(Hat tip: Dan O)