Braving Chilly Nights for Kangaroo Rats

A trap is opened and baited adjacent to an Stephen's kangaroo rat burrow.

A trap is opened and baited adjacent to an Stephens’ kangaroo rat burrow.

6:36 p.m. – The traps are set. Four of us have opened and baited them with millet seed, and all we can do now is wait and hope that they are enticing enough for some endangered Stephens’ kangaroo rats to go inside. We are trapping these k-rats at an experimental restoration site in Temecula, California, to see how the species is doing three years after our initial translocation and restoration efforts (see post, No Night-lights for Kangaroo Rats). As the sun goes down, so does the temperature, and we head to the truck to shield us a bit from the cold and crisp wind.

8:30 p.m. – My first shift to look and listen for coyotes begins. We operate in shifts so that we all get a chance to sleep at some point in the night. Our trap sites must be constantly monitored for coyote presence. They are a wily species and take any opportunity to try and pry one of our precious rats out of its trap for a snack. Can’t they find a species that’s NOT endangered to eat for dinner?!

Researchers collect data on a trapped Stephens’ A kangaroo rat is released back to its burrow.

Researchers collect data on a trapped Stephens’  kangaroo rat.

The coyotes themselves move silently across the grassland, so we vigilantly listen for their shrill yips or the rattling of a trap being disturbed by wild paws. The clouds have moved in, so the night feels even darker and colder than usual. If the temperature drops below 50º Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), we will need to cease our trapping effort for the safety of the animals. I am hoping it stays well above that for the sake of us humans as well! I walk around the site and turn on my flood lamp; the beam of white light shines across our site. I scan all around us. No yellow eyeshine from coyotes, only the silver of our traps and the bright pink from our flags labeling the locations of kangaroo rat burrows.

11:27 p.m. – I feel a nudge on my arm. “Come on,” a voice says, “it’s time to check the traps.” I had taken full liberty to nap while someone else was on coyote watch duty. The cold air on my face is a brutal contrast to the warmth of my sleeping bag. To close my eyes again for just a few more minutes would be heavenly, but it’s time to check our traps and see what we got. Luckily, sleeping upright in a car is never too comfortable, so I welcome the opportunity to stretch my legs, even if it means being out in the cold for a while.

Working in the dark, researchers check to see if any kangaroo rats have been trapped.

Working in the dark, researchers check to see if any kangaroo rats have been trapped.

11:35 p.m. – Our first Stephen’s kangaroo rat of the night! It’s #2364, as indicated by the two small metal tags in its ears. After noting the capture on our data sheet, we let him go. Kangaroo rats are a super-docile species, and I can’t help but giggle a bit when, upon their release, they jump around our feet for a minute before scurrying back into their burrows.

12:41 a.m. – Finished our first trap check. Ready for another nap before our next and final check at 3:45 a.m.

1:48 a.m. – I’m awakened by a gust of cold wind hitting my face. My makeshift sleeping bag fort built precisely to prevent this from happening has failed me! Granted, it was propped up only by the brim of the baseball hat I am wearing, so it was bound to happen eventually. I reconstruct my makeshift fort the best I can and try to get some more sleep.

A Stephens’ kangaroo rat has a metal ear tag for identification.

A Stephens’ kangaroo rat has a metal ear tag for identification.

2:15 a.m. – Second coyote-watching shift of the night! Luckily for us, no coyotes tonight. :-)

3:43 a.m. – That terrible nudge again indicating it’s time for our final trap check. I didn’t think anything would be more difficult than getting up the first time, but I was wrong. It’s only gotten colder, and my hands turn numb as I begin picking up the cold traps and closing them for the night. They’ll be open and set again tomorrow evening for another round of trapping. We check and double-check that all the traps are closed. I’m freezing, even with my two long-sleeved shirts, down vest, and two fleeces on. How do these tiny mammals manage to stay warm in the night? Imagining them in their cozy little burrows underground makes me a bit jealous as I dream of a bed with a big duvet to curl under.

6:33 a.m. – All the traps have been checked and closed, and we begin the drive back to our hotel.

6:58 a.m. – Like a bunch of sleep-deprived zombies, we all shuffle into the hotel lobby. The smell of hot coffee and fresh waffles fills the air as guests enjoy their breakfasts. They must be thinking we are a group of vagrants hoping to score a free continental breakfast as we haul in with our warm clothes on and sleeping bags in our hands. Right now, all I want is some proper sleep—the kind one has in a bed, not the front seat of a truck! I need to rest up, because we still have one final night of trapping ahead of us. It is a grueling schedule, but we are all happy to work it so as to help conserve this amazing grassland species.

Susanne Marczak is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Banding Burrowing Owls.

3 Responses to Braving Chilly Nights for Kangaroo Rats

  1. Suzanne,
    It is so terrific to read and see photos of the interesting work you are doing in care of the creatures of the earth. Very cool!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! I enjoyed reading this!

  3. I enjoyed reading your post and will look to find out more about your Kangaroo rat research program. I am a semi-retired circadian research biologist at UCSD with an interest in volunteering at the Safari park where my wife Kathy now works as a librarian. Although my research has been with lab rodents (especially hamsters) I grew up with and still have a strong interest in ecology and conservation research. I’ll be back.