In southern Alberta, one of the province’s most endangered animals is inexorably dwindling away due to habitat fragmentation. The distinct Canadian population of Ord’s kangaroo rat can only thrive in undeveloped dunes. But what used to be a large, connected network of habitat in the Sand Hills region is now a patchwork series of islands divided by cropland, roads, and oil and gas developments.
The kangaroo rat is not a direct relative of the invasive brown or “Norway” rat and doesn’t spread disease or harm crops. These nocturnal rodents live in open arid landscapes that have very little potential for farming.
They have large hind legs and feet, which they use in combat by leaping into the air and slashing at their enemies. Those powerful hind feet also come in handy with deadlier foes like rattlesnakes, allowing them to vigorously kick sand into the faces of their attacker and then flee from danger through a series of two-metre-long hops, similar to those of a kangaroo.
Canadian Ord’s kangaroo rats are the only ones of their kind to “hibernate” in winter, sleeping 17 hours at a stretch when the ground is covered in snow or if temperatures are too severe — although they have been spotted outside at –19 degrees Celsius during snow-free periods.
Ord’s kangaroo rats require open, sparsely vegetated, sandy habitats that make it easy to hop and to dig extensive burrows. Natural habitats consist of actively eroding sand dunes, sand flats and sandy slopes of valleys in sand hill areas. Kangaroo rats also use sandy areas where the soil is disturbed by human activity, like roads.
Ord’s kangaroo rat is widely distributed in the interior arid grasslands and deserts of western North America, from Canada’s southern prairies to central Mexico. The isolated Canadian population occupies a small area in southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. Their numbers fluctuate greatly over the course of the year, thanks to the large number of pups born each summer, followed by high death rates over the winter. During the seasonal low-point in early spring, the Canadian population ranges between 545 and 1,040.
The primary cause of this animal’s decline is the fragmentation of habitat that occurred when native prairie was converted to cropland during the past century. While high-quality habitat still exists, much of it consists of isolated patches that can support only relatively small populations. These patches are spread too far apart for kangaroo rats to travel from one to another. With no influx of other kangaroo rats to counter the effects of disease, poor reproductive years or inbreeding, these isolated sub-populations are expected to disappear over time. On top of that, Ord’s kangaroo rats are attracted to roadside environments, which studies have shown to be a deathtrap for them.
Recommended Recovery Actions
The federal Recovery Strategy for Ord’s kangaroo rat calls for a number of conservation measures, including determining the most effective method for translocating kangaroo rats to suitable habitat, assessing the degree of isolation among populations and destabilizing sand dunes to create the habitat this species needs.
What We Are Doing
Find out what Wildlife Preservation Canada has done to help Canadian mammals, including the Ord’s kangaroo rat, and how you can make a difference.