In the dark desert outside Yuma, Arizona, there is a performance that must occur. A kangaroo rat pads through the sand looking for a midnight snack of creosote seeds. Three inches away lies a poisonous sidetrack spooled and hungry waiting for it to be beautiful to take only one step further.
The duel is faster than you can blink. The snake knocks out; the rat jumps into the air, kicks the snake in the head and jumps away frantically. Neither battle fighter gets the meal they hoped for.
Fast-moving encounters like this happen every night in the desert and go almost unnoticed by all but the critters involved. But recently, a team of scientists decided to get an overview of the action by recording a summer's worth for snake-on-wheel attacks using high-speed cameras. The resulting uptake revealed that rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus ) and kangaroo rats (genus Dipodomys ) are surprisingly well-matched as predators and prey. It also turned out in brilliant slow motion that kangaroo rats are furry little ninjas who are able to kick kicking acrobatics that would put Bruce Lee in shame. [Photos: The Poisonous Creatures of the North American Deserts]
"Both rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats are extreme athletes, with their maximum performance occurring during these interactions," Timothy Higham, associate professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of two new studies on rat / snake showdowns, said in a statement. "This makes the [high-speed camera] system excellent in justifying the factors that can tip the scale in this race."
In a few new studies published March 27 in the Functional Ecology Journal and Linnean Society's Biological Journal, Higham and his colleagues marked a handful of sidewinders with radio transmitters, tracked then the snakes as they chased kangaroo rats through the Yuma desert. Over the next several months, the team recorded 32 snake-on-rat ambushes. Only about half of these strikes ended with snakebites. When analyzing the resultant slow-mo recording, the researchers formed why.
While the side winners were incredibly fast, able to vault from absolute silence to reach their prey in less than 100 milliseconds (less than the time it takes to blink), the rats were even faster. The team found out that the kangaroo rats could respond to incoming snakes in as little as 38 milliseconds, and sometimes they jumped off the tubing for 70 milliseconds flat.
In addition, some kangaroo rats during the 70 milliseconds of complex midair maneuvers that left the snakes could reel. A rat kicked a snake just below the head and sent the predator flying several meters away. Another rat quickly changed in the direction of midair, turning its long tail like a propeller to turn away from the attacking hose. Other kangaroo rats jumped seven to eight times their body height and launched themselves far out of harm.
"These fast-paced and powerful maneuvers … tell us about the effective strategies to escape high-performing predators," Higham said. It is likely, he added, that the anxious defense of the kangaroo rat – which includes extraordinary hearing aids and explosively powerful hind legs – evolved in response to the speed of predators such as sidewinders and owls.
You can see more of Higham's footage on Youtube. Hopefully it is enough to land the kangaroo rats representation in expensive kung fu movies that they clearly deserve.
Originally published on Live Science .