Hopping, skipping and running are fun ways to play. For a small mouse-like animal called a jerboa, though, hopping, skipping and running are different ways it avoids being eaten by other animals, snakes and birds.

Jerboas have big ears, long tails and short front legs, kind of like a gopher. They have really long back legs that help them hop, skip and run. Like a kangaroo, jerboas move around only on their hind legs. And similar to owls, they have big eyes that help them see at night.

The tiny rodents live in big deserts, like the Gobi and Sahara. The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world and is located in northern Africa. The Gobi is in northern China.

To find food in deserts requires the jerboas to move around a lot at night. That’s where the hopping, skipping and running comes in. Because they are so good at moving in so many different ways, it’s harder for other animals and birds to capture jerboas because they can’t figure out where the rodents might move next.

Being able to avoid being eaten makes jerboas braver about traveling farther from the burrows where they live. Other rodents that aren’t as good at running away tend to stick closer to shelter to avoid being eaten.

Scientists are studying how jerboas move with the idea that they might someday be able to build a robot that could move in different ways. For example, a robot that was exploring the planet Mars got stuck in sand when its tires kept spinning. What if it had more than one way to explore the planet?

Jerboas aren’t the only small animals that run around only on their hind legs. Kangaroo rats and Australian hopping mice also use only their back legs. But for some reason jerboas are the only ones to hop, skip and run.

— Brett French, Billings Gazette