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The Spectabulous Spectabs of Portal

September 1, 2017

Much beloved by those who have worked at the Portal Project, the banner-tailed kangaroo rat (Dipodomys spectabilis) is one of the most charismatic rodents at the site (for us smammal lovers who think rodents can be charismatic, anyway). The fact that they have a nickname—spectabs—attests to this fondness. Look at that mighty tufted tail! Those giant, majestic furred feet! Weighing in at over 100 grams as adults, they are twice the size of our other kangaroo rat species (D. ordii and D. merriami). What’s not to love?

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Dipodomys spectabilis

As avid readers of the Portal blog might recall, the site used to be much grassier back in the day. At the start of the project in 1977, spectabs were running the show at Portal; we even had some plots that excluded only D. spectabilis because they were so dominant! For the spectabs, this was a desert paradise, as they tend to prefer grassier habitats. As the site became shrubbier, however, the reign of the spectabs came to a slow end in the 1990’s. Since then, a few individuals have popped up here and there but haven’t stuck around, often heading for greener (grassier?) pastures.

For me, experiencing Portal for the first time in the summer of 2015, D. spectabilis seemed more like a mythical creature than a real species. I resigned myself to the probability that I would never actually get to see this massive kangaroo rat species and would have to be content with its smaller (and equally adorable, mind you) congenerics.

Then Stephanie showed up.

Of course, rodents don’t arrive at the site wearing name tags; names have to be earned. In April of 2016, Erica excitedly reported back from the field that she had caught—you guessed it—a spectab. This young female, weighing only 70 grams, was the first spectab caught at the site since a quick resurgence lasting from 2008-2010.

Rplot

We assumed she was just passing through. Yet May arrived, and there she was. I finally went out in June, trying desperately not to get my hopes of finally seeing a spectab too high. Over to plot 11 I went, my heart was pounding a little faster than usual. One of the first traps I picked up was very heavy! I’d caught my first spectab! I made my volunteer take a picture of me with Stephanie. You can’t quite tell, but I was teary-eyed with happiness; that might sound a little embarrassing, but I don’t mind admitting it. I was so excited! It felt like I’d completed some type of Portal rite of passage.

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Ellen (that’s me!) with Stephanie, who is far less excited about this picture than I am.

I’m not sure when I decided that our new resident spectab needed a name, but I unilaterally decided on Stephanie and, somehow, it stuck. Most of us assumed she’d disappear pretty quickly; since the 90s, most of the spectabs that have been caught have quickly moved on. And especially since she was young, we figured she was just on some rodent version of rumspringa. But month after month, there she was. Same plot, nearly the same stake every time. Spectabs are known for their well-kept, cultivated mounds, and Stephanie’s was shaping up over in the northwestern corner of Plot 11.

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A typical spectab mound: raised, multiple holes, and well-manicured.

Soon there was talk of whether Stephanie would get a “boyfriend” or not, which rapidly devolved into thoughts of setting up a twitter account for her or making her a profile on that new-fangled dating app, Granvr: the Dating App for Modern Granivores. Stephanie continued to grow, and we started wondering if she would be the exception to the 21st-century spectab rule and actually stay around. In the end, she stuck around for nearly a year; February was the last time we saw her.

Or was it?

In June, our newest Portal RA, Renata, was in her second month of training. We arrived at Plot 11, and what came out of her trap but a spectab! In shock and excitement, I lurched forward and grabbed the bag with the discombobulated rodent out of her hands without thinking or asking (not my best moment, I admit…). Stephanie was back! Or so we thought. Our volunteer managed to capture a dynamic set of pictures that explains the series of events better than any prose can:

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“Stephanie!!!?!”

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“Oh…hmmmmm.”

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“That is definitely not Stephanie…”

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“I shall name him Stephen!”

That’s right. I was holding a very scrotal male…definitely not Stephanie. Stephen hasn’t shown up again, and we assume he’s gone on his way.

Even though we have 40 years of data, the site is still reminding us that we have many unanswered questions. Where are these spectabs coming from? Where are they going? Why now? Will there be more? We sure hope so! And rest assured, we’ll report about them right here.

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