SciSun: Jumping to Conclusions   Leave a comment

Of all the animal species that share our world, rodents number about 40% of the total, with over 2000 unique species, and are found on every continent except Antarctica. What’s a rodent, you ask? Well, they are mammals like you and I (unless you’re a bird, lizard, insect or fish. Then you’re not a mammal. But if you’re one of those, and your reading this, that’s pretty impressive. And kinda scary); and the most distinct characteristics of the rodent is an always-growing set of front teeth – the incisors – that must be kept trimmed by continually gnawing on hard materials like twigs.

Many animals we think of as ‘common’ – and sometimes, even unwanted pests – are rodents: Mice; rats, beavers; and squirrels, among others. But we shouldn’t be quick to judge only based on how similar or different things might appear. Just as not all rodents are mice and rats, some mice and rats are more than rodents. As part of an undercover program, the Pocket Mouse (genus Perognathus) and Kangaroo Rat (genus Dipodomys) have had their identities altered so they can secretly infiltrate…., wait, that’s not right. But it would make a great movie on the sci-fi channel. Actually, these two exceptional rodents (X-rodent?) belong to the Heteromyidae family, species of animals that look much like the typical rodent and are distantly related to their more common cousins; yet not all rodents are the same, and the Pocket Mouse and Kangaroo Rat are different enough to be exclusive. Which makes them think they’re pretty special. And they are!

An Olive-backed Pocket Mouse demonstrates the ability to store seeds in his mouth pouches.  Also his irritation at having it's tail held by some random scientist.

An Olive-backed Pocket Mouse demonstrates the ability to store seeds in his mouth pouches. Also his irritation at having it’s tail held by some random scientist.

Despite their small size; high metabolism; unfortunate position as prey to every predator from owls to coyotes; and generally hard life, over two dozen species of Kangaroo Rat and Pocket Mice have survived and thrived for thousands of years within the most difficult arid environments in North America: The Mojave Desert and surrounding areas of Southern California and Nevada. By being nocturnal – generally only leaving their safe underground burrows at night – they avoid the harsh daytime sun, along with the greater number of predators out in the morning and midday. With very efficient kidneys and physical processes that allow them to get the most benefit from any amount of liquid, they almost never need to drink water, using only the fluids in their foods. Generally eating only leaves, seeds, nuts, and grains each of the species has fur-lined cheek pouches that allows the animals to ‘grab and go’, collecting whatever food they can find during their nighttime adventures and securely taking the seeds back to their home. Plus, they never have to worry about forgetting their shopping bag when they go to the store.

Because desert life can be hard, each species of Pocket Mouse and Kangaroo Rat has evolved to minimize impact on other species by making the most of specific micro-environments (Live and Let Live, is their motto!): While one mouse species climbs into desert shrubs to find seeds still on the plants, another species searches in loose ground for kernels that have already fallen. Most kangaroo rats move quickly from one group of vegetation to the next – jumping as much as six feet at a time – discovering some seeds but unaware of others, leaving them for the more thorough foragers. In this way, multiple species can share scarce resources and relatively small areas, using what they need while leaving enough for others. In fact, the humble Pocket Mouse and Kangaroo Rat are considered desert keystone species, a rare distinction for animals of such small stature and generally overlooked status. Through their selection of seeds, nuts, and grains the animals actually influence the types and locations of desert plants, which is one of the most important determinants of an entire desert ecosystem. Which makes us think sometimes it’s the smallest, least noticed and easily forgotten that might make the biggest difference. And also, these are the same talents that could make a great spy…..

(In fact, we have heard that, from time to time, a few mice have tried to sneak into some of the Las Vegas buffets, but they were definitely NOT welcome. Maybe because they didn’t have enough points on their frequent club cards).


Michonne Says: Once one of these micies was in my burrow. He was very, very small and said he was scared because he saw a hawk (who are always trouble no matter how big you are). But the little micie didn’t take up much room so I didn’t mind him staying for a bit. He asked if I wanted to share some seeds but when I saw where he was keeping them I thought that was more information than I needed to know.

Posted June 14, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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