He had studied rattlesnakes for years, but he want to learn more about the kangaroo rat, a diminutive animal that poisonous snakes shot to eat in deserts of the American West.

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When Clark, an combine professor of biological at mountain Diego State University, and also his team collection up cameras to attempt to movie interactions in between predator and also prey in the deserts of southern California and also Arizona, they came up empty.

Whenever they were lucky sufficient to actually record a rattlesnake attack the rats, the clip only captured a blur.

“You can"t really tell what"s walk on,” stated Malachi Whitford, a doctoral student working v Clark at san Diego State. “We couldn"t even tell that the kangaroo rat gained bit, or if it did gain bit, what happens. It’s usually around 200 milliseconds. This is around the very same speed the you blink an eye.”

Clark, Whitford and also the other researchers persisted, making use of high-speed cameras to catch the video at a much higher quality. To their surprise, they uncovered the humble kangaroo rats are actually prefer tiny ninjas, able to execute jaw-dropping accomplishments of agility and also defensive maneuvers — leaping together high as nine feet in the wait in a split second to evade snake assaults in pitch darkness.

“They have actually this significant athleticism — this combination of speed, power, agility and jumping,” Clark said.

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A Merriam’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami) survives one ambush through a Mojave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus), with an incredibly fast reaction time. (ninjarat.org)

As the team painstakingly gathered much more examples of excessive slow-motion video of rattlesnakes ambushing kangaroo rats, the scientists uncovered an astonishing selection of acrobatic skills that this fuzzy seed-foragers usage to survive. The slow-motion nighttime videos revealed a range of behaviors that weren’t previously observed.

Even more fascinating, Clark said, was that the rats frequently got away.

In the 32 interaction filmed by the researchers, they found that half of the time the snake did control to actually bite a kangaroo rat, yet the rodent had the ability to kick the snake, or roll its body away in time, so that the line was not able to inject its venom, and the rat typically survived.

“Prior to see this slowed means down,” Clark said, “we sort of just thought, well, as soon as the fangs room in, the squeezes the glands, venom"s in, and the totality thing"s done. However it turns out there"s this entirety kind of second high-speed fight that happens.”

The team released some of its findings critical year in functional Ecology, a scientific journal.

To catch the intense high-speed war in extreme slow-motion took a many trial and error, and also highly dedicated equipment. Clark, Whitford, and also San Diego State college graduate college student Grace Freymiller worked with Tim Higham, an combine professor of biology in ~ UC Riverside that specializes in clinical imaging techniques, to collection up high-speed cameras through infrared sensors, allowing them to essentially see in the dark.

Using a special tracking an approach developed to examine rattlesnake ecology (implanting tiny transmitters in the snakes), the team can locate the sidewinder and Mojave rattlesnakes as they made their nighttime feeding rounds. As soon as they found the snakes, regularly curled up, lied in wait to ambush unsuspecting passersby, the scientists delicately went about setting up your infrared floodlights and also remote camera setups.

They offered infrared light because it didn’t bother the kangaroo rats or the snakes, therefore the cameras they to be using had actually sensors that were specifically tuned to document infrared images. Anytime they supplied their regular headlamps, it would certainly spook the kangaroo rats.

The team hiked the cameras and also infrared lights, along with the hefty 12-volt automobile batteries that power them, into much corners that the deserts close to Mojave, California and Yuma, Arizona. Once collection up, they waited — frequently for hrs without luck. Yet when they to be lucky enough to movie a snake attempting come ambush a kangaroo rat, the outcomes were generally fascinating.

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A Merriam’s kangaroo rat organize its prolonged tail. They use their powerful tails to maintain their balance during their acrobatic leaps far from predators. (Josh Cassidy/buzzpatterson.com)

The two species the researchers recorded are the desert kangaroo rat and also Merriam’s kangaroo rat, both of which are typically found in the deserts of southern California and also Arizona. Many of the snakes in the examine were the sidewinder rattlesnake, but the team likewise recorded strikes through the Mojave rattlesnake.

Kangaroo rats are considered by ecologists to be an essential for dispersing seeds and aerating the desert soil through their extensive networks that burrows, spending most of your outdoor time foraging.

They pull, husk and also stuff the seeds into their fur-lined cheek pouches with their small hands, which space tucked listed below their chin. The seeds provide their main sources of food and water in the harsh deserts, and also they consume so tiny liquid the they rarely ever before pee.

As castle forage, kangaroo rats have to continually scan the bordering sandy environment for any kind of predators — foxes, owls, and snakes — that could be anywhere. Once a well-camouflaged sidewinder rattlesnake strikes, aiming its poisonous fangs at the furry seed-harvester, the kangaroo rat springs up, and also away from the snake’s fatal bite, kicking its an effective hind legs at the snake’s face, and using its long tail come twist chin in mid-air, away from the snake to safety.

It’s not just the kangaroo rat’s ability to jump high and perform incredible acrobatics the protects the from snakes. It’s the ability to run high at just the appropriate moment. Biologists think that this skill most likely comes from its to crawl hearing, i m sorry is 90 times an ext sensitive than person ears, permitting the rats to react in as small as 50 milliseconds.

Kangaroo rats have progressed so the the bone structure roughly their ears, dubbed the tympanic bullae, act as herbal amplifiers for the the smallest of sounds, type of like integrated radar food receivers on either next of their tiny skulls.

Overall, their ear structure-to-body proportion is far higher than many other animals.

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Kangaroo rat hearing is ninety times an ext sensitive than human hearing. Researchers think the they have the right to hear the slightest low frequency sounds, choose the flutter of one owl wing, or the wait disturbed by a lunging snake. (Josh Cassidy/buzzpatterson.com)

“Relative to the dimension of your head they blow all the other pets out of the water,” stated biologist Clint Collins at Sacramento State University.

In enhancement to your finely-tuned ears, the desert kangaroo rats’ highly-evolved musculature generates several force really quickly, bring about jumps almost ten times their body height. It’s not the highest possible jump in nature, yet it’s fast sufficient to stop the lunging jaws that the rattlesnake.

“They seem come be type of tiny balls of fast-twitch muscle fibers,” Clark said.

The rats have evolved as specialists in strength over endurance in your legs, comparable to the difference in between the muscle in a human being weight-lifter and also the legs of a long-distance runner.

Kangaroo rats have actually a thick tendon, surrounded by huge muscles, i m sorry translates directly to an ext power and also a much faster reaction time. Through its an effective hind limbs, the kangaroo rat is likewise able to deliver a solid kick come the jaw the the rattlesnake, sending the rattlesnake crashing to the ground, prior to landing away from the snake — every in fountain of a second.

The actions that had initially piqued Clark’s curiosity turned out to it is in only component of a wide variety of highly evolved and also effective anti-predator behaviors aimed specifically at rattlesnakes. In his previously research Clark found that as soon as a kangaroo rat avoids a line strike, it appears to hang around to almost tease the foiled predator.

“It will come back and kind of harass the snake,” the said. “It"ll foot drum, and sand kick, and bound around. Ns think they have actually all these harassment display screens as a way to kind of journey the snake out of your territory, and also get the snake to move on.”

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A desert kangaroo rat (Dipodomys deserti) narrowly avoids being consumed by a Sonoran sidewinder rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes). (ninjarat.org)

These habits also assist alert various other members that their types of the presence of a predator, he added.

Even despite kangaroo rats have occurred such superior defenses versus rattlesnakes, they occasionally shed the battle.

Of the 32 strikes the team recorded, the rats were bitten 15 times, and also of those, lock were eaten by the snake 7 times.

Although it’s straightforward to repaint the rattlesnakes as a kind of villain, every one of Clark’s years examining wild rattlesnake predatory actions gives him a unique snake’s eye watch on things, and also he wants human being to save things in perspective.

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“They"re not out to get you,” he said. “This is a predator that kills and consumes other animals. That"s how it renders its living.”

Reporting contributed by Jazmine Mejia-Muñoz, buzzpatterson.com science Fuhs Fellow, Summer 2019.