Researchers have rediscovered an adorably cute critter over three decades after it was thought to have gone extinct. Known as the San Quintin kangaroo rat, it was last seen scampering around the arid coast of Baja California in 1986, until researchers from the San Diego Natural History Museum found four individuals within its original range.
The rodents were first described in 1925 by the American zoologist Laurence M. Huey, who at the time was the curator of birds and mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum and would go on to describe 84 different species and subspecies of varying creatures.
From the offset, the San Quintin kangaroo rats (Dipodomys gravipes) are thought to have had a restricted range, occurring only within a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) strip of land running along the eastern coastline of Baja California between San Telmo and El Rosario. Despite this limited distribution, there were still thought to be two distinct populations, a northern one that lived among cacti on hilly slopes and a southern one found in the flood plains and on flatter ground.
Yet by 1986, no kangaroo rats could be found anywhere in their range. This prompted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to declare that the little creatures were critically endangered at best, but more probably extinct.
The cause of this precipitous decline is almost certainly down to the fact that those lowland floodplains were not only good for the kangaroo rats, which ate the lush plants and the seeds they produced, but also for farming. Much of the kangaroo rats' original habitat has now unfortunately been turned over to agriculture.
But this latest expedition has turned up some incredible news. It seems the little rodents have not been wiped out altogether as was feared, but have managed to survive despite the land use change. This is great news, as it suggests the rat is a lot more resilient than anyone imagined.
“Not only is this discovery a perfect example of the importance of good old-fashioned natural history field work, but we have the opportunity to develop a conservation plan based on our findings,” says San Diego Natural History Museum’s Scott Tremor in a statement. “The ability to take our research and turn it into tangible conservation efforts is thrilling. It is a commitment to preserving the uniqueness of the Baja California Peninsula.”
The team have since found the kangaroo rats at a second site inside the Valle Tranquilo Nature Reserve, which is owned and managed by the conservation group Terra Peninsular A.C., meaning that hopefully these delightfully cute creatures have their future secured.