Photo by Alison Cleary
Giant Kangaroo Rats. There's an entire population of them out there, and perhaps unbeknownst to you, they're already firmly entrenched in the Central Californian ecosystem. Just to clear things up—scientists are watching them from space, via satellite, as part of a program spearheaded by the Nature Conservancy and UC Berkeley researchers.
Using satellite remote sensing data, the scientists will be able to efficiently count the rats' population and map out their whereabouts. So why all the attention on a couple rats, though of the giant kangaroo variation they may be?
A Giant Kangaroo Rat Problem
The Kangaroo Rats are a keystone species, one that holds a mandatory place in the ecosystem—the species that holds the whole thing together. And the rats are endangered. When a keystone species suffers, so does the entire ecosystem. Found only in Central California, the Kangaroo rat earns this notable distinction due to its eating habits, which have earned him the seemingly less notable distinction of 'nature's lawnmower.'
"The giant kangaroo rat is the ecosystem engineer of the Carrizo Plain, clipping the grass, creating the burrows and enriching the soil that provides the conditions necessary to support a full suite of endangered species," says Scott Butterfield, a Nature Conservancy ecologist.
Ratting Out Climate Change With Satellites
Kangaroo rats play such a significant role in the ecosystem that yearly land management decisions are often based on the population count. And that count used to be done by hand, by trapping and counting the rats—an excruciating, and less accurate method to be sure. The new method will allow scientists to receive a more nuanced portrait of the rats' habitats (seems satellites can do everything these days)—and how and why their population is shrinking. The study could additionally yield important information on the impact of climate change on the environment in general (hey, clues on climate change can come from unlikely places) —it's likely the biggest threat to the rat there is.