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Ord's Kangaroo Rat

Ord's Kangaroo RatOrd's Kangaroo Rats (Dipodomys ordii) are common and widespread in the United States and Mexico. In Canada, the species occurs in the sandhill areas of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Kangaroo Rats are included on the Blue List of species that may be at risk in Alberta because of their unique habitat requirements and localized occurrence in the province. The Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada (COSEWIC) currently considers Ord's Kangaroo Rat to be vulnerable.

The Ord's Kangaroo Rat occurs in grassland and open scrubland environments with sparse vegetation and sandy soils. They tend to  prefer habitats that provide smooth, sparsely vegetated substrates with workable soils because of their bipedal locomotion, fossorial nature, and medium body size. Active sand dunes are important natural habitat for Kangaroo Rats; however, eroding sand dunes are becoming rare in Alberta and Saskatchewan because of gradual climate change and human induced changes in the landscape.  In recent years, Kangaroo Rats have been found to be abundant on roads, fireguards, and other areas frequented by humans near the sand hills in southeastern Alberta.

Ord's Kangaroo Rat Ord's Kangaroo Rat is a member of the family Heteromyidae, a group of New World rodents that is recognized for inhabiting extremely arid environments. There are 24 species of Kangaroo Rat, of which Ord's Kangaroo Rat appears to be the most common and widespread. They are medium sized rodents with orange-brown dorsal pelage and white ventral fur, five toes on each foot, large eyes, and particularly long tails. The species' large hind limbs and feet facilitate the bipedal, hopping style of locomotion for which Kangaroo Rats are named. These Rats are mainly granivorous and collect food items and nest material in their external, fur-lined cheek pouches. Kangaroo Rats meet their daily energy requirements with one maximum cheek pouch load of seeds. They are entirely nocturnal desert animals that are highly fossorial and cache their food underground in complex burrow systems. Accordingly, they are adapted for water conservation and can survive without water for long periods of time. Water conservation is achieved mainly by physiological and behavioural abilities to reduce water loss. For example, they produce highly concentrated urine. Similarly, Kangaroo Rats have the most concentrated milk of the terrestrial mammals. The nasal passages of Kangaroo Rats are convoluted to facilitate counter-current heat exchange and promote condensation of moisture, thereby minimizing respiratory water loss. 

Ord's Kangaroo Rats do not live communally and prefer a somewhat independent lifestyle and will aggressively defend their burrows, food caches, and surrounding areas from intruders. During relatively bright nighttime conditions, above ground activity is minimal, presumably to reduce detection by visually-oriented predators. Also, the structure of the middle ear appears to be an adaptation for predator detection as it is most sensitive to low frequency sound. Erratic bipedal movement should aid in predator avoidance, because this style of locomotion favors energy efficient retreat across open ground to the safety of burrows. 
Ord's Kangaroo Rats might also foot drum and this is an important behaviour because foot drumming alerts snakes that they have been detected, and causes them to retreat rather than investigate.

Despite the extent to which Kangaroo Rats have evolved anti-predator strategies, they are important prey for many raptors, reptiles, and mammals, some of which are considered to be at risk in Alberta. Potential predators in Alberta include Burrowing Owls, Great Homed Owls, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, Snowy Owls, Bull Snakes, Prairie Rattlesnakes, Badgers, Bobcats, Coyotes and Long-tailed Weasels. 

Reprinted from Alberta Wildlife Status Report No. 4 (1997), with permission from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

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