The desert kangaroo rat is a black belt among rodents. In addition to living in the hottest, driest deserts of North America, this tiny mammal fights off rattlesnakes with the speed and agility of the best kung fu fighters, making good use of its extralong, muscular hind legs. Now, biologists have captured just how it uses those legs: by kicking its would-be killer in the face.
Researchers caught 13 radio-tagged sidewinder rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerastes) on film as they lunged for kangaroo rats (Dipodomys deserti) during their evening hunts. The rattlesnakes’ aim was good about 80% of the time, but they landed a bite less than 50% of the time. That’s due, in large part, to the kangaroo rats’ agility: The aptly named rodent can leap almost eight times its body length while kicking, twisting, turning, and even flipping over to avoid capture. And when it’s nabbed, it uses its hind legs to kick the snake off, sometimes propelling the attacker a meter away.
Those gyrations ensured that only one in five rats wound up as a rattlesnake’s dinner, the team reported yesterday in Functional Ecology. An analysis of the rats’ behavior shows that as they maneuver, they are very aware of the direction they want to be headed—away from the snake, the same group reported yesterday in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. By evolving long, strong back legs and a tendency to walk on just those two limbs, the kangaroo rat has learned how to foil one of its deadliest predators. Top that, Bruce Lee.