Giant kangaroo rats are the largest of the more than 20 kangaroo rat species. They are small rodents, so-named because they move by hopping with their powerful back legs. Their front limbs are smaller and used just for digging, while their hind legs are long and powerful. Their very long pointed tail acts like a rudder, providing balance. Their hind legs can propel them in leaps of more than 2 meters when they are escaping from predators. Giant kangaroo rats in the wild can live for as long as 9.8 years, and in captivity up to 5 years.
The Giant kangaroo rat is native to California’s San Joaquin Valley. They occur in dry areas that have less than 15 centimeters of rain each year, in sandy well-drained soils with sparse annual grassland.
These animals are nocturnal and in the heat of the day they hide in their burrows, plugging up the entrance with loose soil. They emerge soon after sunset, forage for less than 20 minutes, and then return to their burrows. These animals are solitary and territorial, broadcasting their territory rights by loudly drumming with their hind feet. Their burrows are typically fairly shallow with many large chambers that are connected: one for a nest and the others for storing food. These animals can move as fast as three meters per second to escape from predators.
Giant kangaroo rats are granivorous, preferring to eat the green parts and seeds of native desert plants, and they will also eat the seeds of commercial plants if they are available.
The giant kangaroo rat is thought to be polygynous (where one male mates with multiple females) but a typical ratio between a male and his female partners is yet to be found. Breeding occurs from late winter to early spring (January-May). The gestation period lasts 28 to 32 days. Between one and six young (with an average of three) are born in spring in a burrow. They are cared for by both parents and at 15 to 25 days they are weaned. They are sexually mature at 60 to 84 days old, when they leave the burrow to seek a new territory within the colony to make their own burrow.
Population numbers of this species decreased rapidly during the 20th century, primarily due to habitat loss as agriculture took over desert areas. More than 95 percent of its former range has been lost as a result of a combination of cultivation, overgrazing mining and the introduction of exotic plants.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Giant kangaroo rat probably exceeds 100,000 individuals. Today this species’ numbers are decreasing and it is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List.
Giant kangaroo rats aid to maintain the desert habitat in which they live by feeding on and collecting seeds.