Three Tiny Creatures
of Oregon’s High Desert

Neal Herbert, NPS

Racing pronghorn. Soaring golden eagles. Charging salmon.

Oregon’s high desert pulses with the movement of these great creatures, but it’s good to remember that the desert’s iconic animals, birds and fish are no more vital to this ecosystem than any other species. They’re just easier to see. In fact, the little guys that live in the shadows of their larger neighbors are pretty intriguing, too.

Today, thanks to ONDA volunteer Marie Goebel uncovering some of the secrets of the high desert’s tiniest denizens, we’ll take a look at three small mammals – Ord’s Kangaroo Rat, Northern Water Shrew and American Pika – and the roles they play, as prey for numerous predator species and important seed dispersers for native plants.

We’ll start by throwing two facts at you.

  1. Nearly half of the mammal species in the high desert – 45 out of 94 – are rodents.
  2. Shrews are not rodents. (They are in the sorex order, a much closer relative of hedgehogs and moles.)

Read on to learn more!

watch

The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

The Land Between: The Greater Hart-Sheldon Region

watch

Sage-grouse Mating Dance

Sage-grouse Mating Dance

watch

Discover Desert Pronghorn

Discover Desert Pronghorn

Kangaroo rat

Marshal Hedin

Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii)

The Ord’s Kangaroo Rat runs most of its errands at night and is only occasionally seen during daylight hours. Its days are spent in temperature-controlled burrows dug beneath the sandy soils between Oregon’s big sagebrush, western junipers and greasewoods. You may find this distinct Kangaroo Rat, with its perfectly tufted tail, scurrying along a well-worn path to collect seeds and grasses. Cheek pouches full, ready to cache the food it has gathered (neatly and by type) in its burrow, the Kangaroo Rat relies on visual cover to avoid the predatory eyes of owls, falcons and coyote. By occasionally forgetting caches of husked and stored seeds, the Kangaroo Rat can be ecologically important in the continued propagation of wild grasses.

Shrew

Gilles Gonthier

Northern Water Shrew

April Henderson, NPS

As we mentioned above shrews aren’t rodents. These insectivores have a high metabolic rate that forces them to hunt and eat frequently or else face the real possibility of starvation.

Amidst the sage, scrub and juniper of Strawberry, Steens, and Hart mountains, you can find one of Oregon’s only populations of the Northern Water Shrew (Sorex palustris).

This miraculous and tiny mammal has a resting heart rate of 1,000 beats per minute. It moves with such rapidity that it spends one hour resting for every half hour of activity. Nearly blind, the water shrew relies on its conspicuous whiskers to find sustenance, which is a constant process for this animal that may only be able to survive a mere three hours without food.

Unbelievably, its frenetic streamlined body can actually walk on water with the help of tiny hairs that trap air bubbles on the bottom of their feet. Check out the second photo in the set above!

This shrew relies completely on the continued protection and health of mountain stream habitats like those found in the Greater Hart-Sheldon Region, and throughout the high desert.

American Pika

Will Thompson, USGS

American Pika (Ochotona princeps)

About the size of a tennis ball with almost impossibly round ears, pikas are incredibly vocal animals with territorial calls similar to the squeaks of a plush toy. More than just adorable, the American pika is becoming an important indicator species in determining the effects of global climate change.

Vulnerable to even moderate temperatures you can find pika sticking necessarily close to high alpine talus, rock slides, and cool microclimates across Oregon. Unexpectedly, low elevation pika populations also occur, including in the Greater Hart-Sheldon Region.

We hope you agree that the mini-fauna of Oregon’s high desert are indeed charismatic and complex!