Kangaroo Rats Missing for 30 Years Rediscovered in Baja California

A rare Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia lesueur harveyi) hides under a hollow log near Cygnet River on Kangaroo Island 14 April, 1999 having been driven to extinction on mainland Australia by foxes and feral cats. This is a marsupial, not a rodent, and not related to the San Quintin kangaroo rat. TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers working in California have accidentally discovered a small, furry animal that no one has documented since 1986.

Scientists from the San Diego Museum of Natural History set live traps in a field in Baja California to catch rodents and monitor their populations. In four traps, they discovered kangaroo rats that they only recognized from field notes of other naturalists, written decades ago. The discovery proves that at least some of these animals have survived well after their last sighting.

The rediscovery of the San Quintin kangaroo rat, which the Mexican government marked as endangered in 1994, was seldom-seen enough that some suspected it was entirely extinct. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently lists them as "critically endangered (possibly extinct.)" Converting their habitat into agriculture made these bizarre creatures scarce.

The San Quintin kangaroo rat, like the other 19 species of kangaroo rat in the genus Dipodomys, is a small rodent with a long, tufted tail. Kangaroo rats get their name from their short front legs and oddly long back legs, making them able to hop around like tiny kangaroos. The scientists describe this species as larger and feistier than its relatives.

This discovery could lead to changes in conservation practices, because it means that these animals still exist and need protection.

"Not only is this discovery a perfect example of the importance of good old-fashioned natural history field work, but we have the opportunity to develop a conservation plan based on our findings," mammalogist Scott Tremor at the San Diego Natural History Museum said in a press release.

The museum will work with the local organization Terra Peninsular, with funding from The JiJi Foundation Fund at the International Community Foundation, to develop a conservation plan for small mammals like the kangaroo rat in the region, according to the press release.