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Thursday, Nov 14 2013 06:29 PM

Museum hopes kangaroo rats will breed like rabbits

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    By Theo Douglas/The Californian

    Eloise, a Tipton Kangaroo Rat at California Living Museum in Bakersfield, in her enclosure.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Theo Douglas/The Californian

    Eloise is a Tipton Kangaroo Rat at the California Living Museum in Bakersfield.

    click to expand click to collapse
BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

Don't start knitting tiny -- very tiny -- pink and blue booties yet, but Bakersfield's California Living Museum has been cleared by state and federal wildlife agencies to begin breeding its 19 endangered Tipton Kangaroo Rats.

In the close-knit world of small rodent conservation, this is a really big deal.

Similar to a gerbil, though about half its size, Tipton Kangaroo Rats are one of three subspecies of four-toed San Joaquin Kangaroo Rats, most of which have lost habitat space to agriculture or urbanization. Visually, the three subspecies are virtually identical.

No one has seen an example of the Fresno Kangaroo Rat, found in the central and northern San Joaquin Valley, since 1992, and researchers say it could be extinct.

The Short-Nosed Kangaroo Rat, found in western Kern County, is doing better and is not currently protected.

The Tipton Kangaroo Rat is more commonly found on the San Joaquin Valley floor, in areas near Tipton, Pixley, and Earlimart in Tulare County and in southern Kern County, though it has been reduced to about 24 groups.

CALM's population, most of which was carefully trapped at an Arvin landfill two years ago, is believed to be the only breeding group in captivity.

"No one else is trying to breed Tiptons. Part of the problem is that we have such a concentration of endangered species here in the valley," said Brian Cypher, a research ecologist with the San Joaquin Valley Endangered Species Recovery Program, established in 1992 at California State University Stanislaus by state and federal wildlife authorities.

Tiny and brown, with dark eyes, big feet for hopping and long tails for balance, Tipton Kangaroo Rats are one of nature's more attractive rodent subspecies.

When grown, they weigh between 1 and 2 ounces and can jump about three times their height, enough to escape a terrarium left unlidded.

Trouble is, they're territorial and will fight to the death, so convincing them to make nice and reproduce is supposed to be difficult.

At CALM, no one is sure if the round little rodents will pitch kangaroo rat woo when the time comes.

"The biggest problem is just the age of the animals. We've had them for three years and they came in as adults," said Don Richardson, CALM's curator of animals. "Kangaroo rats don't have real long lifespans and their breeding age is going to be lower than that."

CALM has received its state permit allowing kangaroo rat reproduction from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, although the federal permit hasn't arrived yet.

Husband and wife Andrew and Sharon Adams -- he's a senior keeper, she's a lead keeper -- have been reading up on "k-rats," as they're known, and consulting with other rodent curators, though Tipton-specific information is rare.

"One of the things that's good to see is if the male grooms the female. And if they're sharing a burrow," said Sharon Adams, noting that as their project gets farther along, they will publish a paper.

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