Wild Thing: Which Is It?
The Texas kangaroo rat has a rather deceptive name.
By Jonah Evans
The Texas kangaroo rat isn’t a kangaroo or a rat, but it is uniquely Texan, found in only a handful of counties near the Red River and the Panhandle. The Texas kangaroo rat isn’t the state’s only kangaroo rat, but of the five species found here, it is by far the rarest.
While kangaroo rats are small rodents, they lack nearly all of the features people tend to associate with rats. Kangaroo rats have long, furry tails, and, as their name implies, they hop on their hind feet like a kangaroo. They are usually associated with arid regions and spend hot days resting in their burrows. If you’ve ever camped in desert regions of West Texas, you may have seen them making an appearance at dusk.
The Texas kangaroo rat was never widespread; historically it was known to inhabit only 11 counties in Texas and two in Oklahoma. Unlike the other four species of kangaroo rats in Texas, the Texas kangaroo rat prefers clay (rather than sandy) soils. It also seems to have an affinity for short grasses and is often found in grazed pastures, leading researchers to postulate that they may have benefited in the past from the impact of large bison herds.
The need for a very specific habitat once allowed it to survive in a unique environment. However, habitats have changed since the time bison roamed, and it now appears that this species is declining. Research is currently underway to find out why.
From 1996–2000, TPWD hired Robert Martin of McMurry University in Abilene to search for Texas kangaroo rats. Martin found them in only five counties in Texas.
About 10 years later, TPWD hired another researcher, Allan Nelson of Tarleton State University, to resurvey Martin’s sites. He was unable to find a single Texas kangaroo rat. While this may be cause for concern, it is worth noting that 2011 was a year of significant drought, and rodent populations can fluctuate dramatically. It’s difficult to know if this is a major downward trend, or simply a short-term dip as a result of the drought. More research is certainly warranted.
A project at Texas Tech University is currently underway to search for Texas kangaroo rats across their historical distribution. Another project at Texas State University is just starting and will survey additional locations.
As researchers learn more about the status of this species and the reasons it may be declining, we also hope to learn how it can be recovered. The Texas kangaroo rat is found only in Texas, and now it’s up to Texans to make sure it stays here.
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page