California researchers accidentally find 'feisty' rodent thought to have gone extinct 30 years ago

Researchers from the San Diego Natural History Museum and the non-profit Terra Peninsular were scratching their heads when they found unfamiliar rodents in traps they placed around a field in Baja California. They were intending to study rodent populations in the area — but instead made a rare discovery.

The San Quintin kangaroo rat was last spotted in 1986. Nearly a decade later, the creature was added to the endangered species list by the Mexican government, the San Diego Natural History Museum said in a statement online.

Scientists suspected the 5-inch rodents went extinct. They searched for the creatures for decades but always came up empty-handed.

Now they're scrambling to come up with a plan to increase the animal's population.

“Not only is this discovery a perfect example of the importance of good old-fashioned natural history field work, but we have the opportunity to develop a conservation plan based on our findings,” Scott Tremor, the museum's mammalogist, said in a statement. “The ability to take our research and turn it into tangible conservation efforts is thrilling. It is a commitment to preserving the uniqueness of the Baja California Peninsula.”

“Not only is this discovery a perfect example of the importance of good old-fashioned natural history field work, but we have the opportunity to develop a conservation plan based on our findings."

— Scott Tremor, San Diego Natural History Museum

The museum plans to continue working with Terra Peninsular to save the rodents that are known for their "large, powerful hind feet" that allow them to jump around like kangaroos.

“Terra Peninsular has been monitoring the nature reserves looking for this species. You can’t imagine how happy we are to find out that after all these efforts and with the help of The Nat we can be part of this rediscovery and continue working on its protection,” Jorge Andrade, adaptive manager coordinator at Terra Peninsular, said in a news release. “It’s very gratifying for us to think that the San Quintin kangaroo rat persists in the area to some extent, thanks to the efforts of the staff, board members, and associated researchers of our organization.”

This isn't the first time researchers from the San Diego museum uncovered an extinct species. In fact, this is the third mammal — joining the high elevation California vole and round-tail ground squirrel — thought to be extinct that the staff has recovered in the Baja California Peninsula in recent years.

“These rediscoveries speak to hope and resilience in a changing world,” Sula Vanderplank, a research associate at Terra Peninsular, said in a statement. “We are learning so much about this animal and its ecology, and we’re delighted to know that it is permanently protected in the Valle Tranquilo Nature Reserve.”

The researchers will elaborate on their findings in a study that will be published in the scientific journal "Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences."