An Animal of the High Desert -- Ord's Kangaroo Rat

INL lies within a semi-arid sagebrush desert. Harsh conditions, such as high and low temperatures, scarcity of water, and lack of soil nutrients, require unique adaptations for plants and animals to flourish in this ecosystem. However, life flourishes even in the harshest environments. Somehow the species that live in such hot, dry areas adapt or evolve to exploit what is available.

The Ordís Kangaroo Rat is one such INL desert resident. Kangaroo rats are about the size of a gerbil, but have large, slightly bulging eyes and small hairless ears. Their tails are generally longer than the rest of their bodies and their hind feet are considerably longer than their front feet. They resemble tiny kangaroos. Like kangaroos, these rats will walk on all fours, but they also hop on their back feet. If disturbed, these creatures can move quite rapidly in hops that can be as long as six feet.

Kangaroo Rats are unique in the animal world because nature has provided them with the ability to survive with very little water and, in the deserts, with no free water at all. They do not store water in their bodies for future use like other animals, yet experiments have shown that their bodies have about the same water content as other animals.

In fact, their bodies have the ability to produce tiny amounts of water when the food inside them, mostly dry seeds, combines with the oxygen that they breathe. They neither sweat nor pant like other animals to keep cool. They also have specialized kidneys, which allow them to dispose of waste materials with very little output of water.

To withstand the extreme climatic conditions in their range, these rats dig deep burrows into the sand that, when plugged from the inside, permit the occupants to spend the daylight hours in comfort, and to avoid the hot, summer sun or the cold, wintery wind. They become active again at night, leaving their dens after sundown, and go abroad even in the dead of winter when snow is on the ground in their quest for food.

Kangaroo rats are well-adapted to nocturnal life. Their big head--equal to one-third of their body length--allows space for an inflated middle-ear echo chamber that magnifies sounds, enabling them to easily hear predators like owls and rattlesnakes. Extra-large eyes placed high on their head give them acute night vision.

Pouches on either side of the kangaroo ratís mouth are used to transport seeds to its burrow. Unlike a hamster, the pouches are not inside its mouth. Instead, the pouches are on the outside of its cheeks, allowing the kangaroo rat to put seeds in them without opening its mouth and losing water from its breath.

Although at first glance the desert seems to have little in the way of wildlife, it actually contains large diverse populations. The kangaroo rat is just one desert creature who has made adaptations to the desertís harsh condition and fills an important niche in the desert ecosystem.

 


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