Leaping and kicking kangaroo rats ward off snake strikes

March 30, 2019 • 11:00 am

This is truly a “viral” video, not in the sense that it’s got a gazillion views, but because it’s ubiquitous on many of the news sites I visit, and also because the cute kangaroo rats have tricks to survive deadly snake attack. They not only leap well out of the way of the striking snake, but give it a hard kick to boot. The adversaries: desert kangaroo rats (Dipodomys deserti) versus sidewinder rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerastes).


From the Washington Post:

The desert-dwelling critters commonly found in western North America have a rather impressive arsenal of evasive maneuvers, including, much to the shock of scientists, the ability to deliver punishing midair “ninja-style” kicks in a fraction of a second, according to a Wednesday news release.

For years, each time a kangaroo rat avoided becoming rattlesnake food, Grace Freymiller and Malachi Whitford, PhD students at San Diego State University who wrote the papers, were left with the same question: What happened?

“You see a blur of motion and then the kangaroo rat is gone, and you have no clue,” Whitford told The Washington Post. At most, each battle between snake and rat lasts about 700 milliseconds, or 0.7 of a second, he said.

The mystery deepened when it appeared that on some occasions the rats were getting bitten, but they weren’t dying, Whitford said.

“It was kind of weird,” he said. “We couldn’t really tell what was happening, but we knew something strange was going on.”

Using high-speed cameras, Freymiller and Whitford led a team of researchers to the desert outside of Yuma, Ariz., in search of answers. When they reviewed their footage in slow-motion, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Freymiller told The Post she had one thought: “Holy s—.”

“It was just mind-boggling,” Whitford said.

. . .In footage Freymiller believes is the first of its kind, a kangaroo rat can clearly be seen leaping into the air and delivering a powerful double-footed kick to a rattlesnake’s head. The video shows the snake flying through the air, its body smacking onto the ground as the rat disappears from view. Researchers uploaded clips of the acrobatic getaways to a YouTube channel aptly named “Ninja Rat,” and by early Friday one video had amassed more than 92,000 views.

“It seemed crazy, Freymiller said. “It was all happening so quickly, we couldn’t imagine they’d have enough time to actually execute a maneuver like that. They’re so fast, it’s amazing.”

With attack times of less than 100 milliseconds, rattlesnakes are fast, but kangaroo rats are faster, researchers found after studying more than 30 interactions. On average, the rats had reaction times of around 70 milliseconds, with some starting to leap away within just 38 milliseconds of the snake striking, the release said.

In fact, even when the snake strikes, the rats often escape because they kick away the snake before it has time to inject its venom.

The research, which I have only scanned, appears in a paper of papers by the same set of authors appearing in Functional Ecology and Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. You can click on the screenshots below to read the articles for free. In the first paper below, the marked and released rodents survived 7 out of 32 snake strikes in the wild (I mourn the kangaroo rats who didn’t survive the experiment).

14 thoughts on “Leaping and kicking kangaroo rats ward off snake strikes

  1. Is it just me or did anyone else think they were supposed to leap and kick a kangaroo rat to avoid a snake attack.

  2. Years ago I went camping in the Anza Borrego desert in southern California. There were several of these amazing desert rodents scampering about the camp site at night. It was really fun watching them.

  3. In windmilling their tail to change direction in midair, they’re using the same sort of kinematic principles that kittehs use to land feet down (as in the previous post).


  4. In Africa some gerbils and the jerboa species have jumping legs as do independently evolved Old World “kangaroo” rats. The jumping habit may have evolved on numerous occasions in small rodents subject to snake predation. I personally never would have thought it — that kangaroo-style jumping in desert rodents might have evolved as an anti-snake adaptation — were it not for the excellent video documentation.

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