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Near-extinct keystone animal spotted for first time in almost a century: 'It was basically a lightning strike'

"It took a lot of work, a lot of diligence. But when we saw those photos, we were awestruck."

“It took a lot of work, a lot of diligence. But when we saw those photos, we were awestruck."

Photo Credit: iStock

The reemergence of a keystone species sparked joy among scientists, ecologists, and biologists.

The Santa Cruz kangaroo rat — a rodent related to chipmunks — used to be plentiful in the Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties in California, but it was thought to be near-extinct until a stunning discovery, the Mercury News reported in June.

The animal's habitat had been degraded or destroyed by sand mining and development, Lisa M. Krieger wrote. And when the kangaroo rat was found only in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park on the Pacific Coast, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife named it a critically imperiled subspecies at risk of extinction.

A kangaroo rat. Photo Credit: iStock

The critter's status is a result of its "outsized effects on other plants and animals in their ecosystem," according to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. They bury seeds of the manzanita plant in sandy soil; what they don't eat grows.

In 2016, independent biologist and Midpen partner Ken Hickman designed and built 100 custom wildlife cameras and set them up in the Midpen's Sierra Azul Preserve, where the kangaroo rat hadn't been seen since 1947.

In 2019, the effort paid off. Hickman spied the rodents — about 25 miles from Cowell Park.

"I loaded up my photos and saw all these kangaroo rats," he said. "I had tears running down my face. It was basically a lightning strike."

The marvel was credited to the conservation efforts in the preserve.

Almaden Air Force Station was located there from 1957 to 1980, and a concrete radar sail was constructed atop Mount Umunhum — prominent in the history and culture of the Amah Mutsun Native Americans — during the Cold War.

It was closed in 1980, and the base was acquired by Midpen in 1986. Midpen received federal funding to clean up the site in 2009 and removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of lead paint, asbestos, fuel storage containers, PCB transformers, and other hazardous materials in addition to 13,680 tons of concrete, asphalt, wood, and other materials — 97% of which Midpen says was recycled or reused, according to Midpen's website, OpenSpace.org.

In April, wildlife biologists trapped and released four kangaroo rats over three days as part of genomic research that will continue into 2025.

"It wasn't an instant success story," Midpen wildlife biologist Matt Sharp Chaney told the Mercury News. "It took a lot of work, a lot of diligence. But when we saw those photos, we were awestruck."

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