Scientists studying kangaroo rats’ reactions to moon

Freedom New Mexico: Argen Duncan Eastern New Mexico University graduate student Amy Behnke, left, and Assistant Professor of Biology Zach Jones test a camera they set up to monitor the movements of kangaroo rats at the Natural History Museum Prairie Preserve near Portales. After learning how best to set up the camera at the preserve, they intend to study how the rats’ behavior changes with phases of the moon and vegetative cover at a ranch near Milnesand.

Argen Duncan

Does the phase of the moon affect how kangaroo rats act?

Eastern New Mexico University Assistant Professor of Biology Zach Jones and master’s student Amy Behnke are beginning research on how active the nocturnal desert rodent is, depending on the brightness of the moon and the amount of vegetative cover.

“Overall, the basic question really is whether these animals are active when there’s a full moon out,” Jones said.

The scientific community has long wondered if the kangaroo rats come out on bright nights, when predators such as owls and coyotes would have an easier time finding and catching them, he said.

He and Behnke think the rats in areas with more cover may be more active on moonlit nights because the vegetation provides protection. If the creatures are more active, Jones said, they would be healthier and the population would last longer.

The two also hypothesize that the kangaroo rats will be most active when the moon is low in the sky and will stay in their holes until later in the night when there’s a full moon.

“Only hunger will drive them out (during a full moon), but that hunger is offset by the fear that they will be seen and captured by a predator,” Jones said.

However, he said it’s also possible the creatures are so well-adapted to avoid predators in habitat with little cover that they don’t worry about the brightness of the moon.

“The main reason to do (the study) is to shape the way we study rodent communities, as a group of scientists who do that,” he said.

Jones said the knowledge could help scientists understand rodents and ecosystems better.

Scientists set out live traps to see if kangaroo rats live in a particular area. When they don’t catch anything, Jones continued, it’s hard to say if no rats lived in that area or if they were staying in their burrows to avoid predators on a bright night.

If Jones and Behnke’s research reveals that kangaroo rats come out little during full moons, he said, it would call into question previous studies that didn’t factor in the phase of the moon. Future researchers would have to make sure to account for it as well.

If they find the moon has no influence, Jones said, it validates past studies and makes future research simpler.

Jones said studying rodents is important because they are a primary food source for predators and they arrange the seeds, and thus the plants, in an ecosystem.

“So they really are the drivers of the ecosystem as well as a food source,” he said.

To answer their question, Jones and Behnke plan to put high-tech cameras near kangaroo rat burrows on a ranch near Milnesand. The cameras can record the time and date as well as taking photos whenever a rat enters or leaves the hole.

Before going to the ranch, they are testing camera set up in the Natural History Museum Prairie Preserve between Portales and Clovis. Jones said he expects to put cameras at the ranch next week, have the bugs worked out by Thanksgiving and monitor the cameras each month for the next year and a half.

Behnke plans to earn her master’s degree with the research.

“I think it’s a great project,” she said.

Behnke, who is from the East Coast, said she hopes to gain more knowledge about the desert ecosystem, which she hasn’t visited before.