When you boil it down, evolution is nothing but a biological arms race, allowing organisms to continually upgrade their anatomical arsenal in order to gain the upper hand in the constant fight for survival. At just a few inches tall, the kangaroo rat may not immediately appear to stand much of a chance in this Battle Royale, but researchers have been left stunned by the ninja-like capabilities that these small rodents have developed to defend themselves from rattlesnakes.
Until now, scientists had little idea as to how these diminutive creatures, native to the western US, manage to thrive in spite of the fact that they share their territory with rattlesnakes. Known for their rapid attacks, the serpents make short work of most of their prey, yet have been known to repeatedly fail in their attempts to hunt kangaroo rats.
To try and understand how the rats manage to keep evading the fangs of their formidable foe, researchers from The University of California Riverside used high-speed cameras to observe interactions between the two species in the wild. As these videos show, the remarkable agility of the kangaroo rats left the snakes with little chance of catching a bite to eat. These astonishing findings have also been documented in two separate academic papers, appearing in Functional Ecology and The Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.
The slowed-down footage reveals how the rats are able to leap away from the snakes in as little as 70 milliseconds, which is less than half of the time it takes a human eye to blink. Given that rattlesnakes are no slouches and often take just 100 milliseconds to launch an attack, it was always going to take something special from the rats to gain the upper hand in this duel.
“Kangaroo rats that responded quickly were frequently able to jump clear of the snake completely, leaving the serpent biting nothing but dust as the kangaroo rat rocketed 7-8 body lengths into the air," explained study author Rulon Clark in a statement.
"But in perhaps the most surprising finding of our research, kangaroo rats that did not react quickly enough to avoid the strike had another trick up their sleeves: they often were able to avoid being envenomated by reorienting themselves in mid-air and using their massive haunches and feet to kick the snakes away, ninja-style."
The studies describe these maneuvers in greater detail, recounting how one kangaroo rat “flipped onto its back, used its hind legs to kick the rattlesnake's head away, and then rotated back upright and leaped away, all in under 250 milliseconds.” In this way, 12 of the rats were able to remove the rattlesnakes’ fangs before the reptile had a chance to release its venom. Of these 12, eight survived the attack.
In conclusion, the study authors claim that bipedalism probably evolved in the kangaroo rat to enable “rapid and powerful vertical leaps that are crucial for avoiding ambush predators, such as vipers and owls.”