A Waning Rodent Species and Its Connection to the California Drought

Belding's ground squirrel

Belding’s ground squirrels have a surprising role to play in California’s drought. (Photo credit: iStockphoto/Getty Images)

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A Desert Rodent with Unusual Looks

A long-eared jerboa snacks on an insect. (Photo credit: Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images)

What is this unusual creature? Though it may look like something out of a video game, this odd-looking animal actually does exist. It is a long-eared jerboa, just one of many types of jerboa found in desert habitats in northern Africa, eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The long-eared jerboa shown here is native to portions of Mongolia, China, and Tadjikistan.

Jerboas are rodents that belong to the family Dipodidae. There are over 30 different species of jerboas. One common feature shared by jerboas is their very long hind legs (the name jerboa comes the Arabic word yerbo, which means big thighs.) from and long tail. A jerboa’s long legs are typically four times the length of their forelegs. The three major bones in the back feet are fused together, which provides additional strength for jumping. A jerboa’s foot has tiny hairs that act like snowshoes, helping distribute their weight and letting them successfully jump agilely across sand. The jerboas long tail acts as a rudder, helping it to keep its balance when it jumps from one place to another.

Jerboas are nocturnal animals, meaning they are most active at night when temperatures in the desert are cooler. These rodents tend to live solitary lives. Jerboas are omnivores and eat items such as seeds, roots, and insects. Given the low amount of water in the desert, most jerboas get the amount of water they need to survive from the food items they eat. During the day, jerboas reside in underground burrows. The jerboas protect themselves from the elements and potential predators by covering over the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.

These two desert jerboas, native to North Africa, are fighting over food. (Photo credit: Tom McHugh/Photo Researchers Inc.)

In 2007, researchers with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) were able to capture the first video images of the endangered long-eared jerboa in its natural Mongolian habitat. The scientists were in Mongolia as a part of the ZSLs program, a group whose purpose is to develop conservation plans for and bring to the spotlight evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered (hence, EDGE) species.

Many jerboa species are either threatened or endangered due to the animals restricted range and environmental factors such as the destruction of their habitat, the introduction of non-native predators, and the impact of global climate change.

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