This is a kangaroo rat.
And this is its foe: the sidewinder rattlesnake.
Whom would you guess is the usual victor?
Hint: Not the rattlesnake.
In fact, in a pair of two new studies using the data collected on rattlesnakes and rats near Yuma, Arizona, the cute little desert rat managed to outmaneuver the rattlesnake three-quarters of the time. What was most amazing about this, however, was how they managed it.
New high-speed video captured by the scientists from San Diego State and UC Riverside of the rodent-reptile tangles captured just how precise and acrobatic – one might say martially artistic – the rat’s escape tactics can be.
Scientists managed to capture these incredible videos by trapping rattlesnakes, inserting radio transmitters, releasing them, and then tracking them to their ambush sites, where they set up high-speed cameras and infrared lights about nine feet away from a waiting snake.
Someone (grad student?) then had to sit there all night in the cold, rattlesnake-infested desert staring at the world's most boring reality TV patiently waiting for a strike, whereupon they’d trigger the cameras to save the preceding 10 seconds of footage. To “encourage” kangaroo rats, the sprinkled sunflower seeds in the area.
Altogether, the scientists were able to record 32 strikes. It didn’t always go well for the snake. In three cases the snake aimed wrong, in two cases the snake was too far away to have gotten the rat even when aimed perfectly, and in one case a snake hit a branch shortly after deployment.
I think we’ve all had days like that.
The biggest determinant of whether a kangaroo rat escaped a snake was not the proximity of snake to rat, but the reaction time of the rodent. Those that avoided snakes reacted in an average of 81 milliseconds, 3.5 times faster than the average human reaction to visual stimuli. The blink of an eye takes 150 milliseconds.
Thanks to their incredibly sensitive hearing, the rats are capable of reacting even faster. In experiments with snapping springs, they reacted in just 20-50 milliseconds. The scientists hypothesized that, unlike metal springs, snakes have evolved measures to dampen the sounds they make when striking, which delays rat reactions slightly.
But it wasn’t just reaction time that made the rats’ strategy effective. It was their mid-air moves. Those powerful kangaroo legs launched them about a foot and a quarter into the air, more than six body lengths. Record-setting humans still cannot even manage one.
Once airborne, they were capable of executing flips to dodge and kicks to shove the snake away. Two of the escapes recorded on camera were removed from analysis because “the evasive maneuvers by the kangaroo rats were so extreme that the body could not be digitized properly.”
The kicking was most surprising to scientists as it had never been observed before due to lack of high speed camera. Rats were able to manipulate their long tails mid-air to maneuver their legs into position for a precisely-aimed kick.
If bitten, a rat that kicked quickly enough could dislodge a snake before it had time to envenomate. Eight bitten rats that acted in this manner managed to boing away unscathed.
And the rats didn’t just follow a pre-programmed snake defense protocol. Each encounter showed unique evasive moves, the scientists said. Sometimes the rat simply flipped itself over or dodged at ground level to escape.
You know what all this should remind you of, right?
Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.
This is my favorite example.
Freymiller, Grace A., Malachi D. Whitford, Timothy E. Higham, and Rulon W. Clark. "Escape dynamics of free-ranging desert kangaroo rats (Rodentia: Heteromyidae) evading rattlesnake strikes." Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (2019).
Whitford, Malachi D., Grace A. Freymiller, Timothy E. Higham, and Rulon W. Clark. "Determinants of predation success: How to survive an attack from a rattlesnake." Functional Ecology (2019).