The duel is over faster than you can blink. The snake lashes out; the rat leaps into the air, kicks the snake in the head and bounces frantically away. Neither combatant gets the meal they were hoping for.
Quick-draw encounters like this happen every night in the desert and go largely unnoticed by everyone but the critters involved. But recently, a team of researchers decided to get a view of the action by recording a summer's worth of snake-on-rat attacks using high-speed cameras. The resulting footage revealed that rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus) and kangaroo rats (genus Dipodomys) are surprisingly well-matched as predator and prey. It also proved, in glorious slow motion, that kangaroo rats are furry little ninjas capable of high-kicking acrobatics that would put Bruce Lee to 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, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of two new studies about the rat/snake showdowns, said in a statement. "This makes the [high-speed camera] system excellent for teasing apart the factors that might tip the scale in this arms race."
In a pair of new studies published March 27 in the Functional Ecology journal and the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Higham and his colleagues tagged a handful of sidewinders with radio transmitters, then tracked the snakes as they hunted 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. In analyzing the resulting slow-mo footage, the researchers figured out why.
While the sidewinders were incredibly fast, capable of vaulting from absolute stillness 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 that the kangaroo rats could react to incoming snake strikes in as little as 38 milliseconds, sometimes jumping clear of the snake in 70 milliseconds flat.
What's more, in those 70 milliseconds, some kangaroo rats were capable of pulling off complex midair maneuvers that left the snakes reeling. One rat kicked a snake just below the head, sending the predator flying several feet away. Another rat rapidly changed its direction midair, cranking its long tail like a propeller to turn away from the attacking snake. Other kangaroo rats jumped seven to eight times their body height, launching themselves far out of harm's way.
"These lightning-fast and powerful maneuvers … tell us about the effective strategies for escaping high-performing predators," Higham said. It's likely, he added, that the kangaroo rat's keen defenses — which include exceptional hearing and explosively powerful hind legs — evolved in response to the lightning-fast speed of predators like sidewinders and owls.
You can watch more of Higham's footage on YouTube. Hopefully, it's enough to land kangaroo rats the representation in animal kung fu movies that they so clearly deserve.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.