Oct. 22, 2012

Riverside's Rodent: The Kangaroo Rat that Stood Up to Development

by Kara Rogers

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The endangered Stephen's kangaroo rat actually is not a rat -- it is more closely related to rodents such as squirrels and gophers than it is to notorious pests like the Norway rat and house rat. But those opposed to the animal's protection might be tempted to invoke the misconception. In 1993 the tiny, two-ounce, cinnamon-furred creature was blamed for the loss of homes from a brushfire in Riverside County, Southern California, and more recently it has been viewed as an impediment to job-creating development in the region.
Earlier this year, developers and conservationists agreed to split nearly 1,200 acres of land lying west of the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. Approximately 660 acres will go to the conservation of the kangaroo rat. The land, however, which had been targeted for industrial development, originally belonged in its entirety to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It had been set aside in the 1990s as the March Stephens' Kangaroo Rat Preserve. The following decade, however, the FWS gave it to commercial developers, accepting a parcel of preservable land farther away from Riverside in exchange. The trade, however, threatened to break up a corridor of preserves on which a variety of native species depend.
The Stephen's kangaroo rat (Dipodomys stephensi) is an unusual creature. Like other kangaroo rats, it is known for its long, rat-like tail and large, kangaroo-like hind feet -- traits that arguably work against it when it comes to shedding the “rat” label. But identity crisis aside, real conflicts do exist when it comes to the animal's conservation and human interests in the Riverside area, which is the animal's last native refuge. There, in addition to its impact on development, the kangaroo rat has also been a potential concern for farmers, because of its taste for crop seeds. Its conservation has been further complicated by mixed perceptions about how Southern California's habitats should be managed.
Conservation scientists have been working to maintain the region's native coastal sage scrub and chaparral-grass habitat. To do so, however, has required prescribed burns, which keep nonnative species out and maintain the open character of the region's native habitats. (Fire suppression in the 20th century had caused some areas of local scrubland to begin to mature into woodland, squeezing out flora and fauna adapted to the scrub environment.) Controlled burns may also help to limit the severity and frequency of destructive, high-intensity fires brought on by fire suppression and drought.
The kangaroo rat, through its consumption of seeds of wild plants, helps to prevent the succession of desert scrubland to woodland. Its presence also is important for prey species such as coyotes and foxes and barn owls and long-eared owls, animals that add to the character of the Southern California landscape. And other species in the area, such as bobcats and the endangered coastal California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica), benefit from the conservation of the kangaroo rat's habitat, too.
The kangaroo rat's conflict with humans has been lessened somewhat by efforts to translocate animals, moving them from areas where they are under particular duress to the Southwestern Riverside County Multi-Species Reserve, for example. But while translocation has been beneficial, protection of the Stephen’s kangaroo rat continues to be challenged by the general lack of knowledge about the animal, especially concerning its reproductive and social behavior. Adults are solitary, and they emerge from their underground burrows to forage for just one hour each night, making them elusive and their study difficult.
Cultivating a sense of appreciation for an animal like the Stephen's kangaroo rat is not a simple task, particularly given residents' fears about the potential for prescribed burns to grow into uncontrollable fires and popular notions about woodlands, which may be ascribed superior aesthetic value compared with scrublands. But there are five other endangered species of kangaroo rats in California. And all -- like the state's rugged coast and interior mountains -- are inherently valuable and, in this author's opinion, deserving of protection.
About Kara Rogers

Kara is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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