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The amiable Allegheny woodrat, listed as a state-endangered species since 1984, is at last making a recovery in Indiana. But it needed a little help getting there. This help came from a partnership among the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Purdue University, and The Nature Conservancy. Together, we’ve been engaged in an ambitious captive breeding program since 2009.
But first, a little bit about the Allegheny woodrat
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.
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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 pups 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.
Captive breeding program (January 2014 Update)
After a discouraging first season in which mortality often occurred swiftly following release of young woodrats, we knew more effort would be required to ease the transition to life in a natural environment. We built large enclosures with the help of Nature Conservancy volunteersthat were installed directly on the landscape. These were designed to confine woodrats for a two-week adjustment period in which they were given time for learning about potential predators and resident woodrat activity while still being protected from these threats. Just as we had hoped, more woodrats survived longer over the 2012 season.
While woodrat trapping results in the summer of 2013 were somewhat disappointing in terms of overall numbers, two of our captive-reared animals were recaptured, both females showing signs of reproductive activity. Now that the captive breeding program has found a permanent home at Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, we are continuing to develop plans involving ‘assisted migration’ of woodrats between populations that will employ the same soft-release strategies we learned through this experiment. Now armed with new techniques for management of genetic diversity and alleviation of disease, we hope to see this charming creature’s continued persistence and expansion in Indiana.
What you can do to help
The Allegheny Woodrat has the unfortunate distinction of being designated endangered or threatened in more states than any other rodent. To keep our native packrat in Hoosier forests, donate to the Endangered Wildlife Fund when filing your state income taxes - look for the Eagle on the tax form. Your donation helps to fund partnerships that pair habitat with science to conserve the rarest of Indiana’s animals.
Allegheny Woodrat Quick Facts
- 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