Photo credit – copyright – J. N. Stuart, Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami)
by Rick LoBello
One of the least known desert wildlife families living in the Chihuahuan Desert and right here in El Paso are the nocturnal rodents. The group includes kangaroo rats, cactus mice, pack rats and cotton rats.
The Merriam kangaroo rat is one of the easiest to look for. Next time you hike into the desert especially in areas dominated by creosote bush, look for kangaroo rat burrows near the base of the plants. Commonly called k-rats by biologists, watch for small piles of soil with multiple entrances each about the size of golf ball.
During the heat of the day these highly successful rodents stay underground waiting for the night. It’s at that time when temperatures cool down that the k-rats come out in search of food.
Kangaroo rats hop as they move around just like kangaroos. They eat creosote, mesquite and grama grass seeds that they carry to their burrows in their cheek pouches. This amazing desert creature is able to survive without drinking water by metabolizing the water it needs from the seeds it eats and by conserving water by condensing moisture in the nasal passages. Imagine if humans could do that!
If you want to see a kangaroo rat look for burrows during the day and return to these areas at night with a flash light. One rainy night this past summer I went to Don Haskins Park near my home to look for Couch’s spadefoot toads. As I walked towards a temporary breeding pool a kangaroo rat ran by me. Using the light on my IPhone 7 I captured it on video. I never imagined that my best pictures ever of a k-rat would be taken with my phone.
On another night when walking along Redd Road near the library I saw one running on the side walk. I haven’t seen many kangaroo rats in El Paso mainly because I haven’t taken the time to look for them, but they are there, everywhere.
Get to know your desert neighbors and add a k-rat safari adventure to your bucket list.