Kangarito: Dropping the rat


Kangaroo rats have a bad rap and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with their name.  I study these animals so of course I care about kangaroo rats and I think they are an important part of the California ecosystem, but not everyone appreciates them as much as they deserve!

Kangaroo rats have the misfortune of having the word “rat” in their name.  This word conjures images of disease transmission, oily fur and crop destruction.  But kangaroo rats are not associated with any of these things! And technically the term “rat” is a misnomer. 

Kangaroo rats are small animals with large heads, large eyes, soft and silky fur, small forelimbs, large hind feet for jumping and a long tail.  They look like miniature potato sized kangaroos but it turns out they are not related to kangaroos or even the smaller wallabies.  They live in Western North America from Southern Canada to Mexico but they are only active at night so most people don’t end up getting to see them. 

They hop around and eat seeds that they collect in their fur-lined cheek pouches.  They don’t carry any diseases that can be transmitted to humans and they avoid human habitation.  So if you have an animal living in the walls of your house it will not be a kangaroo rat.  Unfortunately, most species of kangaroo rats are threatened or endangered.  This is because their historic habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate.  They are important members of the ecosystem because they build burrows which helps to support healthy soils and they help maintain native plant communities. 

So why are they called rats? They are rodents so they are related to rats and mice (more than they are to kangaroos) but they are only distantly related.  They are more closely related to beavers and pocket gophers than they are to black rats and house mice.  When kangaroo rats were named almost 200 years ago there was enough open space to go around, for people and for kangaroo rats.  But now things are getting crowded and kangaroo rats are getting pushed out of their habitat and I think their name might be jeopardizing their survival. 

Which is why I propose changing their name, removing the word “rat”, and adding the Spanish language suffix of “–ito” to indicate their smallness in size and general cuteness.  This would be similar to a “cafecito” or a small coffee.  Therefore they would go from the “kangaroo rat” to the “kangarito”.  Kangarito fits them because they resemble kangaroos but much smaller and arguably cuter.