By Scott Tremor, Sula Vanderplank, Jorge Andrade and Enrique Alfaro
Being a field biologist is full of romanticisms and hypothetical ideal scenarios that many long for, such as discovering a new species and name it after your surname, documenting the first record of a rare species or the rediscovery of an extinct species.
When you are in the field all these incentives motivate your search and boost your work to the maximum. A huge expectation and excitement surrounds you when you check the SD memory of a camera trap that you left placed for days or when you open a Sherman trap to see what animal is inside of it. The best way to exemplify this emotion is by comparing it with an impatient and impressed child who discovers the world around him and is amazed by its wonders, which are totally new to him. Can you imagine this huge emotion or do you remember it? Let us express to you with total certainty that this euphoria multiplies exponentially when you complete one of the dreams that we have just described.
Let us talk about the San Quintín kangaroo rat or Dipodomys gravipes: it is a rat of the family Heteromyidae and of the genus Dipodomys. This genus includes kangaroo rats that resemble a small kangaroo due to their bipedal mobility, as its name implies. It has a robust body compared to other kangaroo rats in the region, large hind legs and a long tail. It is an endemic species of the area of San Quintín and El Rosario, the range of distribution included the coastal plains from San Telmo to El Socorro and was also in the plains of El Rosario stream (Huey, 1925). The last record, at least until recently, was more than 30 years ago. It was considered extinct by institutions such as Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) and today it is a priority for conservation at international level, so it is enlisted as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and in the Official Mexican Standard NOM-059-ECOL.
Recently the San Quintín kangaroo rat was rediscovered on an embankment surrounded by agriculture by some of us (Tremor et al., in press). Of course, this event was incredibly exciting. The rediscovery of the species gives hope to it, but where else will it be found? Are there viable populations in other places? Are the sites impacted? Are they in protected areas? How do we protect it? Since the great discovery and to address all our questions, we formalized our team, a team made up of members of the San Diego Natural History Museum and Terra Peninsular: the K-Rat team. From this moment on, we looked for the San Quintín kangaroo rat throughout the range of distribution described by Huey in order to know the state of conservation of the species and to create strategies to protect it.
Our search has consisted in the identification of suitable habitats for the species within the distribution range depicted and describing the species. It sounds simple, but if we consider that we do not really know much about the species and that the distribution range is relatively large, it is not as simple as it seems.
Each new sampling site has been exciting because in each of them there is the possibility of finding at least one specimen of the species. At dawn, when we approach the places where we think we might find it, there is a moment of preamble and expectation that translates into silence. The team’s minds are occupied with the question: will we find it on this site? The apparent result is always positive or negative, and we are whether excited to find it or disappointed. The reality is that it does not matter if we find it or not, each new place gives us a lesson. We learn something new every time, and new questions and doubts arise.
Our work has given positive results, we have found the San Quintín kangaroo rat and we can say with certainty that it is not extinct and more importantly, we have found it in two nature reserves of Terra Peninsular, Valle Tranquilo and Monte Ceniza, where actions will be taken to protect it.
The importance of having rediscovered this species lies in the very importance of any species, however insignificant it may seem. The deep relationships between organisms and their abiotic environment are delicate and the extirpation of a species has severe ecological consequences. Without the San Quintín kangaroo rat we lack an important element of the ecological system and as a consequence we put at risk ecosystems important for all the beings of the world including humans. Imagine a scenario where the loss of the species modifies the landscape that you enjoy and depend on, imagine that if a species disappears the river course from which you acquire water is modified, imagine that if a rodent disappears, like the San Quintín kangaroo rat, the dispersion of seeds of important plants is finished. This rediscovery is very important for Terra Peninsular and for the San Diego Natural History Museum, but above all for humanity itself and especially for the people of the San Quintín and El Rosario area.
We have fulfilled one of those whims of the field biologist and in the process we have gone back to the most basic stages of our childhood, but the story of the rediscovery is not over, we have found a blank book in relation to this species, a book that is waiting to be written. We are motivated by what we can discover, but above all we are motivated to find the mechanisms to ensure the conservation of this important species for Baja California.
- Huey, LM 1925. Two new kangaroo rats of the genus Dipodomys from Lower California. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 38: 83-84.
- Tremor, SB, SE Vanderplank and E. Mellink. 2017. The San Quintin Kangaroo Rat Rediscovered. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. Accepted.