Santa Cruz Kangaroo Rat Photo by Ken Hickman

Santa Cruz Kangaroo Rat Research and Adaptive Management

(Ken Hickman)

Within the large expanse of the Sierra Azul Open Space preserve lives a small rodent, known as the Santa Cruz kangaroo rat (SCKR). Although small in stature, kangaroo rats are considered a “keystone” species, meaning its activities have great influence on the plants and animals that make up its habitat. As granivores that cache seeds in shallow burrows, SCKR have a mutualistic relationship with manzanita, and other plant species that make up their diet. Manzanitas are fire adapted plants and by burying manzanita seeds, SCKR protect them from getting too hot when a fire passes through. The smoke and ash from fire will promote germination of these cached seeds, leading to a new cohort of manzanitas. 

Midpen was alerted of the discovery of kangaroo rats in Sierra Azul by an independent researcher in 2019. This critically imperiled subspecies is only currently known to exist in one other location, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, CA.  The kangaroo rat is listed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) as a critically imperiled subspecies, meaning that it is at risk of extirpation. 

Midpen is embarking on a habitat assessment and series of botanical surveys within known SCKR habitat to better understand the habitat characteristics that supports the species.  The results of these assessments and surveys will inform the creation of an SCKR Habitat and Population Monitoring Plan. 

Natural Resources Protection and Restoration
Natural Resources

Research Goals and Techniques 

The presumed population of SCKR is found in five locations within Sierra Azul. Along with a known population in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, these are the only known extant populations of this rare subspecies.  To support the long-term viability of the population, Midpen is supporting ongoing genetic research being undertaken by a collaborative team from UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and CalPoly San Luis Obispo.   

The results of the study will include the confirmation of subspecies identification, an assessment of the genetic diversity of the population and the development of a range-wide monitoring plan.  In addition, the study intends to inform a potential listing status for the species under the California Endangered Species Act.   

In conjunction with this ongoing genetic research, Midpen is pursuing a detailed habitat assessment and rare plant surveys to be completed to inform the development of a habitat and population management plan (HPMP).  The HPMP will identify opportunities for site-specific enhancements to increase the population resiliency of the species. 

Santa Cruz kangaroo rat photo by Ken Hickman 2
(Ken Hickman)

Santa Cruz kangaroo rat (Dipodomys venustus venustus)

  • Neither a kangaroo nor a rat – more closely related to gophers and chipmunks 

  • Large hind legs with an unusually long tail 

  • Live in burrows, but poor diggers - requires loose/sandy soils 

  • Bipedal locomotion - need clear/open ground to hop, including under shrubs 

  • Majority of diet is seeds, so vegetation types and plant species diversity is important 

  • Non-hibernating - collect and cache seeds 

  • Does not need water - can get it from foods; bathe in sand-baths 


Phase 1FY 2022-2025Genetic Research, Habitat Assessment, and Habitat and Population Management Plan
 December 14, 2022Midpen Board of Directors approves contract with Nomad Ecology to conduct botanical surveys and a habitat assessment that will inform the development of a Habitat and Population Monitoring Plan
 Spring 2024Habitat enhancement work in Sierra Azul
Phase 2FY 2025-2030 Habitat and Population Monitoring and Management
Phase 3FY 2026/27 or later Habitat and Population Monitoring
Phase 4TBD Adaptive Management for ongoing Population Management