Meet the central rock rat

The central rock rat. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 01/05/2022.

As you may know, I studied rodents in during my PhD work. While I specifically studied prairie voles, I did some field work that exposed me to other rodents (i.e., rats, mice, shrews, etc.). So I thought I had a good handle on the types of rodents out there.

But guess what? I just found out about a group of rodents I had no idea existed: rock rats. Rock rats are rodents with a thick, long tail (which explains why they’re also called thick-tailed rats). They are in the same family as rats and mice, Muridae.

Further research into these cute little guys lead me to the rock rats with the best genus name: Zyzomys. There are five species in this genus, all of whom live in Australia. Today, I want to tell you about one of them: the central rock rat, Zyzomys pendunculatus.


  • A chipmunk-sized creature with a built-in fridge
    • Central rock rats weigh 70 – 120 grams, about the same as an adult chipmunk. They are lightly colored, perfect for blending in with their rocky habitat. Central rock rats also have a furry tail with a thick base. This thick tail serves as fat storage that the rock rat can draw upon when food is scarce.
  • Surprisingly fragile
    • Apparently it’s really hard to handle a central rock rat. Not because they’re particularly vicious (although most animals will bite if handled), but because they are known to lose their tail, fur, and skin extremely easily when handled. Which is slightly disturbing.
  • An Australian native
    • The central rock rat is endemic to Australia, which means that it is both native to Australia and only found there. In Australia, they live in dry, typically rocky areas with grass and shrubs for cover. In fact, the central rock rat is the only species of rock rat in Australia that lives in arid zones. This species also prefers to live at higher elevations, such as in the MacDonnell Ranges.
  • You’ll have to look hard to find one
    • Fossil records suggest that central rock rats were historically found across dryland Australia; now, though, there are only around three small sub-populations in the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory. This represents a >95% loss in the territory that central rock rats cover.
Distribution of the central rock rat. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 01/05/2022.
  • The central rock rat has been lost and found
    • The current population of central rock rats is so small that scientists thought the species was extinct between 1960 and 1996. But surprise! It was rediscovered at 14 sites in Australia between 1996 and 2001! Then there was a fire and the population crashed. Once again, scientists found no central rock rats at their monitoring sites between 2002 and 2006. Small populations were since found in the MacDonnell Ranges.
  • They are critically endangered
    • We don’t quite know for sure how many central rock rats are left in the wild, but the IUCN puts the number of mature individuals at around 800. Part of their decline is the result of fires destroying their habitat. Another large threat for central rock rats are feral cats. In fact, one study suggests that feral cats prefer to hunt central rock rats over other rodents.
      • Quick side note about cats. Please please please keep your cats inside! Not only is it safer for your cats (they’re less likely to get injured), keeping your cats indoors helps protect vulnerable native species like central rock rats.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the behavior of central rock rats because they are so endangered. We know that they are probably nocturnal, and that they eat seeds and insects. They seem to have litters of between 1 and 4 pups at a time. Other than that, we don’t know much.

I’m going to be honest, the outlook for the central rock rat is not great. Still, people are working to protect this species from complete extinction. They are protected in the West MacDonnell National Park, for example. There is also a captive breeding program at Alice Springs Desert Park, with the hope that some animals may be able to be released back into the wild at some point. Protection plans exist that incorporate fire and feral cat management to help protect wild central rock rats. I hope these little fat-tailed rodents are able to stick around; I would love to be able to see one in the wild some day.


Resources

IUCN Red List

Animal Info

The Conversation

One response to “Meet the central rock rat”

  1. […] hunting strategy can decimate the population. This is what is happening, if you recall, with the central rock rat. One cat single-handedly drove off an entire colony of vulnerable fairy terns in Australia; […]

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