National Geographic : 1940 Oct
Dipo, the Little Desert "Kangaroo' BY WALTER E. KETCHAM With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author " ANCHO Dipodomys! What in the World does that mean?" exclaim city -1- visitors when they notice the sign swinging from the porch of my California desert home. "Wait till sunset," I tell them, "and you'll find out." Later, when the Bullion Mountains, off to the north, turn pink and purple in the setting sun, I scatter handfuls of wheat on the porch and in the sand. Soon there come bouncing toward us, from all directions, small furry animals with long, tufted tails, hopping along on their hind legs like miniature kangaroos. These are my kangaroo rats. They have been coming to me for food ever since I pitched my tent here thirteen years ago. Their scien tific name is Dipodomys deserti deserti. Be cause they have been my constant-and often my only-companions all this time, I named the ranch in their honor. Neither rat nor kangaroo is "Dipo," but a relative of the pocket gophers, and the most beautiful, interesting, and lovable of all my desert neighbors. Wanderers of the Night The genus inhabits the desert and semi-arid regions of North America, particularly south western United States and northern Mexico. However, one may take many long trips to the desert without coming in contact with it, for Dipo is abroad only at night. A few evenings after establishing residence on my homestead entry near the oasis of Twentynine Palms, about 130 miles (150 by motor) east of Los Angeles, I noticed several strange little animals searching for food in front of my tent. Their fur was light tan or sand-colored above, pure white beneath. I threw out some bread, which they immediately accepted, and within half an hour they were taking it from my hand. This was my introduction to these little leaping balls of fur, and association with them has turned out to be profitable as well as pleas ant. The tent has evolved into a guest ranch, since I have become known as "the man who has the kangaroo rats," and numerous visitors come here from cities along the Pacific coast. Every evening now there may be a dozen or more Dipos busily moving about my porch like diminutive vacuum cleaners. Once I counted 25. "How are they picking up the grain?" in variably ask my guests. "With their forefeet." "But I don't see any forefeet. They look like two-legged animals." The answer is, they hold their tiny fore feet-one could almost say "hands"-so close to the body at all times, and the body so close to the ground when gathering food, that the forelegs are seldom seen. A Cache and Carry Device Dipo does not eat when collecting grain, but stows it in his cheek pouches to take to his burrow. These fur-lined pouches are out side the mouth. What he carries home each trip would make me a generous portion of puffed wheat. I soon learned that he prefers wheat to any thing else. He also prefers, once he has lost his timidity, to gather it from my hand, where he can scoop it into the pouches instead of picking it up grain by grain from the porch. If I slowly raise my hand, he will hop onto it and I can feel his forefeet tickling my palm as he gets the last few grains from between my fingers. The pouches gradually expand until the head appears twice its normal size. When Dipo has a full cargo aboard he looks as if he had a bad case of mumps (page 539). The broad head is joined directly to the body, without visible neck. Dipo must move his whole body when he wants to look in a different direction. "They scoot around like mechanical toys," my guests tell me, watching them erratically moving about gathering grain. One evening I offered a whole slice of bread to one of my pets which I had enticed into the cabin. How to carry this home was a prob lem. Finally, getting it balanced up in the air, holding it with teeth and forefeet, he made for the door, hopping along erect on his toes. But he forgot the threshold. Tripping, he sprawled head over heels out onto the porch, dropping the bread. He persisted, however, and finally got the unwieldy load to his home. To obtain their share of the supply of food on the porch, those living farthest from the cabin dash away five to ten yards, dig a small hole, empty the pouches into it, cover the grain, and hop back for more. There remains the rest of the night to collect this cached food and take it to the burrow.