5 Jerboa Facts: Explaining Cute Jumping Rodent

video of a tiny rodent called a jerboa has popped up again on the Internet, leaving us to wonder about these adorable animals that look like windup anime hamsters.

Here are some fun facts about the desert rodents—as well as your doctor’s note saying that a Cute Animal Break helps you focus at work.

Jerboas get around by jumping.

These able leapers, which live in North Africa and Asia, are aided by hind limbs that are at least four times as long as their forelimbs and long tails that add balance.

“Jerboas have very erratic locomotion, adopting a zigzag trajectory, and can jump several feet both vertically and horizontally, even though they are usually about the size of your fist,” said Talia Yuki Moore, a Harvard graduate student studying locomotion in three jerboa species.

Moore hypothesizes that while their erratic jumping is good for evading predators and likely for finding hidden, random food resources, it’s not very energy efficient: It takes jerboas more energy to get around than most animals their size.

Jerboas don’t drink water.

They get all their moisture from their food, mostly plants and insects.

Photo of a jerboa.
A captive desert jerboa (Jaculus jaculus) seen in 2011. Photograph by Robert Pickett, Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

There are 33 species of jerboa.

Six of these species are considered pygmy. Though not fully identified, Moore thinks the jerboa in the popular video is likely Cardiocranius paradoxus, the five-toed pygmy jerboa, who also made it onto a stamp in the USSR in 1985.

The most oddly proportioned family member is the long-eared jerboa, first caught on film in the wild in 2007 during a Zoological Society of London expedition to the Gobi. With ears that are two-thirds as long as its body, the animal has one of the largest ear-to-body ratios in the animal kingdom.

Let’s put it this way: If basketball superstar Yao Ming was a long-eared jerboa, his ears would be the same size as Jada Pinkett Smith. He’s 7.6 feet (2.3 meters) tall, and she’s 5 feet (1.5 meters.)

Why the long ears? It may help desert animals like the long-eared jerboa keep cool, Moore said. “As the blood moves through the ear, the heat easily dissipates from the blood vessel across the skin, and into the air.” 

Britain used the jerboa as a mascot in World War II.

As seen in this video of the greater Egyptian jerboa, the rodents are very quick—which likely inspired Britain to make the animal a symbol for the country’s 7th Armoured Brigade, known as the Desert Rats.

Photo of a long-eared jerboa in China.
A long-eared jerboa in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photograph by Liu Jian, Xinhua Press/Corbis

The brigade was raised as part of the 7th Armoured Division, which fought in World War II campaigns in North Africa. Major General Michael O’Moore-Creagh wanted his troops to share the animal’s tactic of popping up, having a quick look around its desert environment, and popping back down. (Jerboas were even featured on patches that the soldiers wore.)

The Desert Rats, which are still in existence today, were given a larger-than-life commemoration when British artist Anna Redwood built a half-ton sculpture of a jerboa out of scrapped armored vehicles used in Afghanistan. The Desert Rats will be the last British troops to be deployed there.

—Jerboas aren’t good pets.

So why isn’t this cutie a common U.S. household pet? For one, jerboas native to or exported from Africa are restricted from entry into the U.S. and have been since 2003 due to their association with monkey pox, said Adam J. Langer, team leader of Quarantine and Border Health Services for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are special exemptions for scientific research.

What do you think is the coolest thing about the jerboa?

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Meet the Author
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com