Scientific name: Neotoma magister
Body length: 15 -18 inches
Tail: 6 - 8 inches
Weight: 7 - 13 ounces
Physical characteristics: brownish gray with black-tipped hairs; throat, belly and feet are whitish; large ears; long whiskers; furry tail
Range: found in southern midwest and north eastern states: NY; PA; OH; IN; MD; WV; KY; VA; NC; TN; AL and GA
Habitat: caves, rocky cliffs, outcrops, bare dunes, wooded bottomlands
Diet: herbivore; mainly fruits, nuts, seeds, bark, and grasses
Lifespan: ~3 years in the wild
Predators: bobcats, foxes and owls are their main predators in Indiana
Conservation status: endangered in Indiana; globally vulnerable
Most people don't like rats and naturally wouldn't understand why anyone would want to try to save them, yet the native Allegheny woodrat is a rat anyone could love. State endangered since 1984, Indiana would be at a great loss if these sweet little creatures ended up on our extinction list.
Cute and sweet-natured don't necessarily come to mind when we think of rats, but the Allegheny woodrat is both. Really! These true "packrats" don't look or behave like the rats we're more familiar with, but could be considered rather handsome with their cinnamon-colored coats and long, furry tails. Certainly their large eyes and long, twitchy whiskers can capture any rat-hating individual's heart.
And steal your heart they just might! Allegheny woodrats aren't called packrats for nothing. These nocturnal creatures spend their nights foraging for food and nesting materials. Large numbers of twigs, leaves and grasses can be found in their cup-shaped nest, not to mention an assortment of odd, miscellaneous objects. Reports of Band-Aids, glass bits, gun cartridges, feathers and bones have been found in their homes and refuse heaps called middens.
The life of an Allegheny woodrat is a short one. Generally known to live an average of three years out in the wild, this rat needs to reproduce in order to keep up a healthy population. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the breeding season peaks during April and May. Gestation lasts between 30 - 37 days, with an average of two per litter. Some females may have a second litter later in the summer, but with populations in steep decline, the chance of even one litter is questionable.
The Allegheny woodrat's Indiana range once stretched as far north as Owen County, but for the past thirty years their range has been rapidly shrinking. In fact, populations have plummeted by more than 50% in the last 15 years. According to NatureServe, remaining populations are restricted to the south-facing bluffs, caves and rocky shelters on the Ohio River in Harrison and Crawford counties. Unfortunately the reason for the decline is unclear. Unlike most endangered animals, habitat loss is not thought to be the primary cause of the packrat's disappearance. The leading theory involves the raccoon roundworm, a parasite that is often fatal to small mammals. Habitat fragmentation and inbreeding due to such a small population are also considered significant reasons for their decline.
It is believed that in order to save our furry friends, new blood was needed. In the fall of 2007, Purdue University researchers, biologists from the Indiana Wildlife Diversity Program and The Nature Conservancy's Blue River Project staff released a few dozen Allegheny woodrats into the wild. These woodrats, transplanted from Tennessee and Kentucky, were fitted with tiny transmitters that would allow biologists to monitor where they've established homes and if they bred successfully. The Indiana Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program also continue to monitor the status, distribution and size of the packrat's populations through periodic surveys and field searches. If the Allegheny woodrat succeeds, hope for these incredible creatures sticking around Indiana is great.
The Allegheny Woodrat has the unfortunate distinction of being designated endangered or threatened in more states than any other rodent. In order to keep the packrat in our state, help is needed through contributions via donations to the Endangered Wildlife Fund. Donate during your next state income taxes - look for the Eagle on the tax form - or directly to the program. Every little bit helps! Certainly for our rarest of mammals.