Why scientists are so interested in studying this jumping rodent that looks like a furry t-rex

Jan 8, 2016

The jerboa is a rodent that looks like a mouse with crazy, springy hind legs. Some have compared it to a kangaroo crossed with a mouse or a tiny, fuzzy rodent t-rex. It’s native to Asia and Africa, and has developed strong hind legs to help it evade predators in barren desert areas with few places to hide. 

Video producer Christian Baker recently spent a few hours with researchers who are studying the jerboa. 

“Not only was I not able to pick one up, it was very difficult to even film them,” Baker says. “They are really quick. We had set up a little enclosure and we were trying to film them. I think I was on my belly for about 45 minutes panning the camera left and right. And we certainly have a lot of very blurry footage. It's probably similar to pictures of the Loch Ness.”

Jerboas are capable of jumping some three feet straight up in the air using their powerful hind legs, which are anatomically different than you might expect.  

“They walk upright on their toes. Their legs are really kind of weird looking,” Baker says, “When you look at their legs what you think is a backwards-turned knee is actually their ankle. And then this very long bone that shoots out from that, you would think is their shin bone but that's actually their foot. And then connected to that are other toes and that's what they walk around on.”

Researchers are interested in the jerboa because they think it might help them learn more about bone growth. 

“What we can learn by studying the growth rate of the bones in jerboas is how those bones grow as fast and as large as they do. And if we can understand the mechanism behind that, then we can start to understand how to manipulate that mechanism, which has applications if you were trying to treat bone growth deficiencies in people,” Baker says. 

Other important information Baker learned? Well, unfortunately for pet-lovers, jerboas do not make good pets. 

“They are unfortunately illegal to own as pets in the United States,” Baker says. “That was the very first thing I looked into, but it is sad to say, you cannot own one.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.