|Endangered Species of Canada Stories by the Edmonton Journal, December 1999
A Dwindling Legacy: Cover Story
Copyright: Edmonton Journal
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A GUIDE TO WILDLIFE AT RISK
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species, a federal advisory group, has created a list of 340 animals and plants that are in some jeopardy. Here are the categories the committee uses:
Extinct The species no longer exists in Canada
Extirpated A species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere.
Endangered A species that faces imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened A species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.
Vulnerable A species of special concern because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.
Endangered Species in Alberta - A Different Webpage:
Blue Flag [a flower]
The Edmonton Journal
November 21, 1999.
Their homes on the range are becoming rare
Unique rodent can live without water, but cant survive with man
ORDS KANGAROO RAT
In the fall of 1993, rancher Danny Fieldberg was ploughing some land on his property in southern Alberta when up popped some creatures hopping about like miniature kangaroos.
Fieldberg counted six in all and managed to catch one. He then phoned the local Fish and Wildlife office and asked if someone could come and take a look. The wildlife officer was initially skeptical. But not only did he end up seeing one of the miniature kangaroos running along a furrow, he concluded after further investigation that the creatures were denning on the property.
To many people, the Ords kangaroo rat is a figment of the imagination something children in southern Alberta conjure up when they encounter large field mice in the barn.
"Theyre like a fairy tale," says Fieldberg.
"I remember seeing a few in the bale stacks when I was a kid. But talk to most people down here, theyll tell you that they dont exist in southern Alberta."
Fearing he might bring harm to the kangaroo rats, Fieldberg decided to forgo ploughing the 20 hectares of land.
He never thought much about it until a young University of Calgary student came looking to rent his farmhouse some time later. David Gummer had answered a call from a professor who said the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada was having trouble finding someone to do a status report on the kangaroo rat.
"I got the job because no one else seemed to know anything about them," says Gummer.
"I had just started research on them at the Suffield Military Reserve, and just by coincidence, I went to see Danny about renting his place. I knew nothing at the time about his report to Fish and Wildlife until he told me the story later.
Gummer says that when he grew up in Regina, the only time he ever heard about the kangaroo rat was in school, where the animals ability to go without water for most of its life was extolled.
"Most people on the Prairies will tell you they know nothing of the species," he says. "But theres a reason for that. Theres only a few places in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan were you can find them. And because they are nocturnal, youre not likely to see them unless theyre out at night or if they disturb their dens during the day."
The Ords kangaroo rat is a desert rodent commonly found in the arid regions of the United States and Mexico. What distinguishes it from other rodents is its stocky body, very long tail and large hind legs which allow it to hop around like a kangaroo. Presumably, this erratic locomotion is an evolutionary trait that allows the rat to escape its many predators including the coyote, great horned owl, burrowing owl, badger and rattlesnake without expending too much energy.
Studies have shown the middle ear of the kangaroo rat is sensitive to the acoustic frequencies produced by snake strikes and owls flapping wings.
What we know about kangaroo rats in Canada has been gained largely from American scientists who have vast stretches of desert and grassland that support far more kangaroo rats.
Like its southern cousin, the Ords kangaroo rat in Canada prefers semi arid grassland with open scrubland sandy soils. They will fiercely defend their burrows from other members of the species. They eat seeds, breed prolifically and live as long as seven years in captivity.
They are good at acquiring water metabolically and rarely need to take a drink or excrete their urine. There are reasons for this.
Experiments have shown that kangaroo rats choose seeds with the highest moisture content. Their nasal passages are designed to favour condensation of water before it is expelled. They also spend the hottest and driest time of the day underground where it is cool and humid.
Gummer believes that the Canadian prairie version of the Ords kangaroo rat may be different from its American cousin. "Our Canadian population is isolated from those that are found in Montana. Up here they may well have evolved to adapt to a longer harsher winter, and to different food sources."
Also , unlike its southern cousin, Canadas kangaroo rat goes into a shallow hibernation during the winter. "They have a really deep sleep every day to conserve energy, then they wake up forage the food they store in the ground," says Gummer.
Winters take their toll on the species. Gummer has done one study that suggests only 10 per cent of the kangaroo rats survive the season.
"Its one reason why theyre vulnerable," he says. "Being so isolated and with limited habitat available to them, a very harsh winter combined with another catastrophic event could really push back the numbers."
While kangaroo rats burrow and hunt on the sand dune habitat of the southern Prairies, Gummer has found they will occupy other areas such as fire breaks and the sand and gravel surfaces found in the Suffield Military Reserve.
The military reserve, in fact, is home to the largest population of kangaroo rats in Canada, at least the largest that has been found and studied thus far.
In 1995, Gummer recommended the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada list the kangaroo rat as vulnerable.
"Ords kangaroo rat is really at the very northern edge of its range in this country and its distribution is limited by climate and its unique habitat requirements.
"The problem is these sparsely vegetated sandhills and sandy soils are few and far between and they are slowly being encroached upon by humans."
What the future holds for the kangaroo rat, no one seems to know. Gummer says his research has been hampered by the fact he cannot obtain funds.
"Its been really frustrating. Here weve got a highly specialized species that has adapted to the unique Canadian environment and one that most Canadians know very little about. But its been surprisingly difficult to generate enough interest to fund the research."