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Counting Giant Kangaroo Rats, from space

Note the critical position of the comma…. :-)

Scientists plan to count California’s Giant Kangaroo Rats on the Carrizo Plain National Monument, using satellite photos in the first-ever monitoring of an endangered species from space. The Carrizo Plain is a 390-square-mile desert grassland 150 miles southwest of Fresno that is home to the most concentrated remaining populations of kangaroo rats.

Images taken by the same satellite used by Israeli Defense Forces will be examined for circular, bare patches of ground produced by the critically endangered rats as they gather food around their burrows. The photos will be compared with 30 years of satellite images that will be released this month by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument is California’s largest remaining undisturbed grassland that is similar in geography and biology to the San Joaquin Valley. The Carrizo Plain supports many of the animal and plant species that used to live in the San Joaquin Valley before the arrival of water in canals and aqueducts turned the Valley into a patchwork of intensively cultivated farms and orchards. Some 90% of the habitat of the kangaroo rat has been “lost” to farming since the 1950s.

So what is the big deal about a little 5-inch rat? The Giant Kangaroo Rat occupies a “giant” position in its ecosystem. The rat, besides being critically endangered itself, provides shelter and food for other endangered species. Their burrows provide shelter for the endangered San Joaquin antelope squirrel and blunt-nosed lizards. The rats themselves are a favorite food of the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

High rainfall promotes the growth of taller, nonnative grasses that overrun the shorter grasses whose seeds serve as food for the Giant Kangaroo Rats. When the population of kangaroo rats declines, so do the populations of other endangered species, both plant and animal. In turn, the population and foraging patterns of the rat will help the U.S. Bureau of Land Management establish a grazing policy for cattle to control nonnative grasses and keep the population of the keystone species, the Giant Kangaroo Rat, at healthy levels.

Did you think that life is simple, even for rats? :-)

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo™

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