Springhare (genus Pedetes)

I first saw a springhare (though not a live one) at the Field Museum in Chicago. I don’t remember seeing it (there was lots to look at), but I must of seen it because the springhare is on my list of future blog posts. More recently, I was at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, and saw live springhares leaping around. I was looking for a rodent to blog about, and so it seemed like fate that I should write about springhares today.

And yes, springhares (known as springhaas, if you’re South African), are rodents. They may be named after hares, and have a kangaroo-like hop, but they are neither lagomorphs nor marsupials. There are two species of springhare, the South African springhare and the east African springhare. Springhares are found in relatively dry areas, though they are also reasonably common in agricultural areas.

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They’re pretty cute, aren’t they? Image source 

Springhares are pretty big for rodents, reaching lengths of 35 to 45 cm. They have great big ears, each of which can be up to nine centimetres long. Springhares come in a range of browns, and have white bellies. They have big long tails, that are made more impressive by their bushiness.

It’s the big ears that make springhares look like hares, but the kangaroo part is all in their hind end. Springhares have massive hind legs that can propel them quite far. I saw these guys in action at the zoo, and man can they jump! They can leap over two meters in a single hop. Springhares hop around to avoid predators, but move on all four feet when they are calmer.

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A springhare happily hopping along. Image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

Another way springhares avoid predation is by being nocturnal, and hiding underground during the day. They spend the day safely inside tunnels that they dig themselves. Often a springhare will plug the entrance to their tunnels with soil, for extra protection.

Springhares specialize in using areas of land that other herbivores cannot utilize effectively. Where springhares live, grasses are too sparse to support large grazers, and the land is open, which means small animals are susceptible to weather and predation. Springhares have adapted to these regions quiet well: they are small enough to make efficient use of the available plants, and large and mobile enough to escape predation.

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A work in progress – I am practicing with my new pencil crayons and really have to start making my pictures darker! But I ran out of time and patience, so he’ll have to wait. 

Mating in springhares can occur year round, and happens more than once a year. While most rodents are quite fecund, giving birth to multiple offspring at a time, springhares give birth to a single baby after a gestation of 78-82 days. The young are born furred, and open their eyes after three days. At seven weeks of age, when the young are about half grown, they will leave their mother and set out into the world.

Springhares were once listed as a vulnerable species, but they have since been downgraded to a species of least concern. They are vulnerable to hunting, as well as to habitat loss. Thankfully these cute fellas no longer seem to be experiencing a population decline, which is certainly good news!

Cover image source

Springhare (genus Pedetes)

Today’s animal is one I saw way back when we were in Chicago at the Field Museum. I made a list of wonderful and exotic animals, and have since blogged about many of them. But the list isn’t quite depleted, so whenever I’m stuck for an animal I just have to open my handy little list. So today let’s talk about springhares!

Springhares are not actually hares, and they aren’t even rabbits. They are in fact rodents, and there are only two species, the South African and East African springhare. Both are found in Africa, and are nocturnal, spending most of the day curled up safely in burrows. Springhares like areas with dry, sandy soil, and so are usually found in grasslands or semi-arid habitats.

Springhares may not be rabbits, but they are about the size of them, reaching lengths of 35-45 cm. They look like miniature kangaroos, with large, powerful back legs. They are reddish brown in colour, with black tips on the ends of their poofy tails.

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A South African springhare leaping around. Image credit: Bernard Dupont via Wikipedia

The large back feet and legs of springhares give them incredible hopping power. They can leap up to three to four meters when escaping predators, something which is very important when you’re a rabbit sized herbivore. Springhares get all their water from their diet, which consists mainly of grass seeds and corms.

Most of springhares’ behaviour is centred around avoiding predators. Their nocturnal habits help keep them safe, and when they are above ground foraging, they usually stick together in groups of two to six animals. Their burrows are constructed to be very escapable; some springhare burrows have up to ten escape routes. Springhares will block many of the burrow entrances with soil, to foil predators that can enter burrows, such as mongooses and snakes.

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These guys are pretty cute! Image source

Mating in springhares can occur at any time of the year. Females give birth to only one baby, but they usually have three pups a year. The babies’ eyes open after three days, and young leave their mothers after seven weeks. When the young springhares are weaned, they are almost fully grown, and are thus fairly well equipped to deal with predators.

Habitat loss and hunting pressure caused a decline in springhare populations in the 1990s, but the population has since stabilized, and they are now listed as least concern. Hooray for springhares!

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Dormouse (family Gliridae)

Anyone who’s read or watched Alice in Wonderland will have heard of the dormouse. But do you actually know what a dormouse is? I always assumed it was just a mouse that was also a doorkeeper. Turns out I was quite wrong.

There are currently 29 species of dormouse in the family Gliridae. They are found in a wide range, including sub-saharan Africa, Europe, China and Japan, though most species are found in Europe. They live in a variety of habitats, such as forest, shrubland, savannah, and desert. Almost all species are at least semi-arboreal, and there is only one that is exclusively ground-dwelling.

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The dormouse from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Not quite the same as real-world dormice. Image source: Wikipedia

Dormice are rodents, though they resemble squirrels more than mice. Most species have large, bushy tails, short limbs and broad feet. They have evolved to be excellent climbers, with arboreal species having toe pads that help them grip branches. Dormice reach lengths of 6 to 19 cm, and usually don’t reach weights over 180 g.

Dormice are known for their incredible ability to sleep. Species living in temperate zones hibernate during cold weather, sometimes sleeping for the majority of the year (one species has been observed to hibernate from August until May!). Dormice actually get their common name from their penchant for sleep; the word dormeus means ‘sleepy one’, and has since been altered into the recognizable form it has today.

Dormice mate shortly after waking from hibernation. Mating rituals differ between species; in one males follow females around while making a variety of noises, in another females whistle to get the attention of males. Once females are ready to give birth, they retreat into nests. These are generally built in trees, and are globular in shape. In some captive species, male dormice have been observed to stay and help with the pups, but this behaviour has not been seen in the wild.

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The edible or fat dormouse, considered a delicacy by the ancient Romans. Image source

As small rodents, dormice are quite susceptible to predation. They deal with this in a number of ways. They are nocturnal, so there are fewer predators around when dormice are active. When threatened, dormice will bite, hiss and spit at their assailants. Some species can also detach their tails and regrow them if necessary. These strategies don’t completely solve predation, and owls remain the most common predator of dormice.

Although the thought of eating rodents might seem a little odd to us, dormice were (and still are, in some places) considered a delicacy. The Romans in particular liked to eat the fat dormouse, and fattened them up in special enclosures called glirariums (presumably from which the family name is derived). I don’t know if I’d want to eat a dormouse, but who knows, they might be delicious.

Cover image credit: H. Osadnik via Wikipedia

Jerboa (family Dipodidae)

 

I’ve spent a lot of time in my graduate career learning about rodents. You see, every project we do in our classes is supposed to relate to the species our research project is on. So because I work with mice, every single presentation, essay, and project I’ve done in the past year has had something to do with mice. So you’d think by now I’d be thoroughly sick of mice and all their lovely rodent relatives. Fortunately, this is not the case! In fact, at a talk earlier this semester about field research in Mongolia, jerboas were mentioned, and I was instantly curious. So after checking them out in my handy Encyclopedia of Mammals, I decided these guys would make an excellent blog post.

Jerboas are members of the family Dipodidae, which also includes jumping mice and birchmice. Dipodidae are well known for their ability to jump, and in fact all members of the family travel by leaping around. The jerboa, however, takes jumping to another level. Just by looking at the skeleton of this rodent you can tell there is something weird about it.

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Basically, jerboas are built like kangaroos. They use their ridiculously large hind legs for locomotion and their tail for balance. The forelegs aren’t used at all when moving; jerboas use the tiny limbs for gathering food. But trust me, jerboas don’t need their front legs to move. Their hind legs are specially designed for jumping power, with three foot bones fused to provide extra strength, and enormous size (they are over four times the size of the front limbs). Species that live in sandy areas have tufts of fur on the bottoms of their feet to give them traction (much like snowshoes do in snow). The result of these adaptations is that jerboas can jump an astounding 10 feet while moving quickly, and can jump 3 feet vertically. Not bad for an animal that doesn’t get bigger than ten inches.

Many jerboas live in sandy and arid habitats, and they have special adaptations to deal with these harsh environments. I’ve already mentioned the fur on the bottom of the hind feet, but some jerboas also have hair that covers their ears to protect them from sand. Some species also have a flap of skin that covers their noses while they burrow. To avoid the heat, jerboas are nocturnal, and spend most of the hot desert day inside burrows. Jerboas can have up to four types of burrow: temporary summer burrows, temporary winter burrows, permanent summer burrows and permanent winter burrows. Temporary burrows are used to escape predators and are usually simple, consisting of only one tunnel. Permanent burrows are much more complex, and can have a number of different chambers and be over 6 feet deep.

A long-eared jerboa, looking pretty silly.

A long-eared jerboa, looking pretty silly.

Jerboas mostly eat seeds and any desert plants they can find. One species eats mainly beetles and beetle larvae, but the majority of other jerboa species are herbivorous. Jerboas don’t have to drink to survive, as all their water needs come from their diet. You can imagine how useful that trait is in a desert.

Despite their somewhat silly appearance (especially the long-eared jerboa, I just can’t get over how weird that one looks), jerboas are really cool animals. So you see, rodents are awesome (I just kind of wish I could study jerboas)!