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Earth Notes: The House Rock Valley’s Desert Rat

The name is practically as long as the animal itself: the “chisel-toothed kangaroo rat.” It lives in desert landscapes from Oregon and California through Utah and into northwest Arizona. 

K-rats, as they’re called by human desert rats, are named for their habit of hopping across the landscape on long hind legs. And they are the ultimate desert rat. Consummate water conservers, they can survive without drinking free water, getting moisture instead from the seeds they eat.

One subspecies, the House Rock Valley chisel-toothed kangaroo rat, inhabits the wide-open shrublands below the Vermilion Cliffs on the Arizona Strip. It’s active at night, foraging in saltbush, socializing, and sand bathing, with a tufted tail that’s longer than the brownish-grey body itself. Oddly, the K-rat’s cheek pouches are lined with fur.

The chisel-toothed K-rat displays another adaptation that accounts for its name. This rodent uses flat, lower incisors shaped like wood chisels to scrape away the salty covering on the leaves of four-wing saltbush leaves. That lets it bypass a lot of the plant’s toxic salts, with any excess removed in specialized kidneys.

Not too many people have seen these animals. In older surveys conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, only a few chisel-toothed kangaroo rats were found. They may be naturally scarce, or perhaps their habitat still shows the effects of past intense livestock grazing. Think of them as desert ghosts, rarely seen but perfectly at home in the only landscape they’ve ever known.

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