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Nature

Giant Kangaroo Rat Will Be the First Endangered Species Monitored from Space

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:

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo via Wikimedia [social_buttons]




7 comments
  1. Kevin Smith

    Hey, I just had a question and was hoping to hear back from you soon. This website talks all about how you plan on tracking them and estimating the population soon, but what is their current population today? Without the actual population number, no one can be completely certian that they’re endangered, correct? So again, what is their estimated population currently? Something you might want to include next time.

    1. Bill Wilkinson

      Good question Kevin. I would like to know that as well. My son is doing a middle school science project on the giant kangaroo rat and needs to know the population for graph purposes. Is there anyone that can answer that question?

  2. Amber Renner

    I may only be a sixteen year old sophmore from Missouri, but I find it completly impossible to believe the whole space kangaroo rats theory, it’s on this site and on many others, How apparently the Giant Kangaroo Rat was found in space and brought back to Earth to help reproduce. If it’s so possible for them to live and survive in space then it is against all odds able to live and survive and reproduce down here on Earth. Yall need to get your facts straight before rushing out and telling everyone what you know or think you know about a species when it’s not even true. I read this whole page and wanted to share my thoughts on it. I have to pay more attention to Biology class now. Thanks for all of your time. Hope you take my advice and change your information a little bit. Have a good day and a great rest of the year. -AMR

    1. Max Ritter

      um they never said it could live in space they said they would use satellites to monitor its population on earth. 😛

  3. Joyce Lewis

    I cought a kangaroo rat in my yard and I have been unable to find out what kind it is. I have called fish and game 3 times but they will not return my calls. I turned it loose again but would still like to find out what kind it is. If it is endangered or not as the county is planning some nearby construction. How do I go about this… I also killed an unsual rattlesnake last year and called fish and game about it, also got no reply on that..what can I do in situations like this and who do I call….Thanks although I really don’t expect a reply from this either..

  4. Janaye Matthews

    hello,
    My name is Janaye Matthews and I attend the Cherry Creek Challenge School in Denver, Colorado. I am doing a project on the giant kangaroo rat and was wondering if you could answer some of my questions:

    1) What are your current major projects?
    2) What is the specific work that is being done on behalf of the giant kangaroo rat?
    3) What do you like about your work?
    4)Why do you think that your work is important?
    5) How does your work impact local economies, governments, societies, or the Earth?
    6) What volunteer opportunities are available to assist your work?

    If you could email me back at sablesaturday@gmail.com thanks!

    Janaye Matthews

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