A scientist named Tim Bean, who is a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley writes the following on a website: “I expect that ‘Counting Rats from Space,’ the proposed title of my thesis, will become an international phenomenon, spawning everything from a board game to a Top 40 dance hall burner.”
His dream might soon come true. Bean is one of the primary researchers on a project that will use images from Israeli defense satellites to obtain an accurate population estimation for California’s endangered Giant Kangaroo Rat–a keystone species. The study will be the first to use satellites to research an endangered species. [social_buttons]
The Giant Kangaroo Rat has lost approximately 90% of its native habitat in California to agriculture. It is considered a keystone species because it helps to directly provide habitat and food for other animals. It gets its name from its long back legs that allow it to –you guessed it– jump well. The Giant Kangaroo Rat is a species endemic to California, and should not be confused with the 21 other kangaroo rat species.
Giant Kangaroo Rats fulfill their role as a keystone species by chopping down vegetation. They then eat the seeds of plants. At the same time they help to create an ecosystem appreciated by other endangered animals, like the kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. Plants also benefit, as the seed clippings that the rats use to surround their burrows help enrich the soil with nutrients.
When cutting down vegetation, Giant Kangaroo Rats do so in a pattern that creates almost perfect circles, which can be easily seen from the air. For this reason, scientists in the past have tried using aerial surveys to document and estimate the California Kangaroo Rat population. In addition they have used traditional techniques like trapping. These methods proved cumbersome, however, and thus entered the idea to use satellite images.
Bean and his counterparts who work for the California Branch of the Nature Conservancy and Carrizo Plain National Monument will collect their data by using images from Israeli satellites, as well as 30 years of satellite images released by the U.S. Geological Survey. They will use the circles that surround the burrows of the kangaroo rats to estimate the population. Carrizo Plain National Monument contains what are considered to be California’s most ecologically-intact grasslands. The whole study region, however, is quite arid and desert-like. Bean and his colleagues will survey an area about 390 square miles in total.
One potential application of the study’s findings will be the design of livestock grazing plans based on an increased understanding how rainfall affects vegetation size in the region. Grazing might actually help accommodate the needs of kangaroo rats in several unique ways.
As rainfall has increased in the study area, so has the size of vegetation– limiting kangaroo rats’ sources of food. It is thought that the increasing scarcity of food has perhaps caused a chain reaction: as populations of kangaroo rats have decreased, their role as ecosystem architects has likewise diminished. So using cattle to help the kangaroo rats have more food in certain areas might be a potential application that is driven by data collected from this study. Cattle grazing might also reduce the spread and growth of exotic plant species that the kangaroo rats do not use for food– an additional benefit.
Tim Bean has said the following about the research and its importance: “Without them [kangaroo rats] the entire ecosystem would go out of whack… Carrizo is like a Yosemite for grasslands, and there are decisions people are learning to make to manage it in a way that preserves its natural state. Since the kangaroo rat is so important to its function, we’ve got to get a handle on it.”
Bean obviously has been persuasive, and it makes me curious: why would Israel agree to let Bean and his counterparts use their defense satellites? It certainly is an admirable gesture, and I wonder why the United States was not willing to jump on to the project first. These questions aside, I can’t wait for the “Counting Rats from Space” board game and corresponding dance club hit.
Read More News About Endangered Species on the Green Options Network:
- Scientists in Costa Rica May Have Saved “Rarest Frog in World” from Extinction
- The Bush Administration Actually Saves a Species: Gray Wolves Remain on Endangered Species List
- Bush Removes Still Threatened Flying Squirrel from Endangered Species List Against Expert Advice
Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo via Wikimedia [social_buttons]