It's not really a kangaroo, even though it has pouches, oversized back feet, and can jump nearly nine feet. Like it's namesake, the kangaroo rat depends on grasses as a food source, and thrives in habitats where grasses are easy to obtain. Unlike a kangaroo, however, or even most rodents, kangaroo rats thrive in harsh arid conditions.
Desert and Plains
Although kangaroo rats are spread throughout the continental United States, they prefer to live in arid and semi-arid regions, like deserts and plains. They tend to avoid cultivated and urbanized areas, or places with too much moisture. A kangaroo rat's body is well adapted to survive in drought conditions, so a nearby water source is not a consideration. In farming regions, they will choose to live in spaces with natural vegetation rather than planted fields.
Ranges with scrub brush or grassland are important to the kangaroo rat. Burrow entrances and exits usually are located at the base of bushes, while grass seeds are a main source of food. Since individual kangaroo rats have small home territories, often only 200 to 300 feet, everything they need for survival must be located within that territory.
A burrow is more than just a place for a kangaroo rat to hide. The burrow serves as a nest, food storage chamber, breeding ground and nursery for youngsters. Burrows have several chambers, and the kangaroo rat plugs the entrances during the day. This means that soft, sandy soil is a habitat requirement. The soil must be soft enough to dig, but not so soft that the burrow and tunnel system collapses.
Kangaroo rats are small, but their impact on their habitat is large. They are responsible for distributing native seeds and disturbing the soil just enough so that the seeds can germinate. On the other end of the spectrum, they also prevent vegetation overgrowth. Their role in keeping the right balance of plants in their habitat is so profound that they are considered a keystone, or vital species. According to the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research, ranges of scrub brush convert to grassland within 12 years if kangaroo rats are removed from the environment.