Saturday, September 30, 2017

Allegheny Woodrat, a charming packrat

A sheer cliff face of dolomitic limestone thrusts upward from the forest floor in a remote area of Adams County. The rock is pockmarked with crevasses and alcoves; perfect habitat for one of the rarest mammals in Ohio.

Some time back, Laura Hughes invited me along on one of her field research visits to this Allegheny Woodrat site. Of course I said yes, especially as I'd never seen one of these interesting little rodents. So, finally, September 24 was the day, and John Howard and I met Laura and her assistant Shane Herbert early that morning along a road near the Ohio River in southern Adams County.

The night prior, Laura and crew had placed 31 traps in ideal woodrat habitat. This work is spearheaded by longtime woodrat researchers Cheryl Mollohan and Al LeCount, former instructors at Hocking College. Captured woodrats are weighed, sexed, and a small blood sample is taken so that DNA can be extracted.

After arriving at the site, we loaded our gear up and headed back into the woods to see what the traps might yield. The first set was a bust, although Laura thought that they might be most likely to produce a woodrat. Just as I began to wonder if all would be for naught, a cry went up from Laura - a woodrat was in a trap!

We rushed to the scene, and there he was, peeking curiously at his captors. A male Allegheny Woodrat, weight 340 grams. After Laura and Shane efficiently dealt with gathering necessary information, we prepared to release the mammal. There aren't many good photos of woodrats in their native haunts, at least in Ohio, and both John and I wanted to portray the mammal in the best possible light. My big fear was that it would quickly dart back into one of the cliff's narrow crevices, never to be seen again and before we could get any shots off.

Allegheny Woodrat, staring curiously at our group of large bipeds. No need to worry about getting photos, as it turns out. These charming mammals seem to have no fear whatsoever of people, probably because they rarely if ever encounter Homo sapiens, at least at this site. So, upon release into a rocky alcove, the woodrat turned, sat, and stared at us for a good minute or so. During that period, both John and I got some excellent images, with John also obtaining remarkable video footage (a clip is at the end of this post).

I really wish the word "rat" was not in this wonderful little mammal's moniker. That word instantly conjures very bad connotations for most people, as they associate it with the Norway (now, Brown) Rat, Rattus norvegicus. This is the introduced (in this part of the world) rodent that can infest buildings, sewers, dumps, etc., and is a carrier of bubonic plague. The Allegheny Woodrat could not be further in character, habits, and habitat than that invasive mammalian scourge. In fact, we wonder if its common name should be changed to something more user-friendly, such as "Velveteen Cliff-Mouse". Who would not want an animal with a name like that around?

The word "packrat" probably stems from woodrats in the genus Neotoma. These species (only the Allegheny Woodrat, N. magister, occurs in Ohio, but there are about 21 other species, mostly in western North America), are fabled for their propensity to stockpile all manner of items. The above photo shows a woodrat midden ("trash heap") in a long abandoned outbuilding in Adams County. I made the image ten years ago, on one of my previously futile ventures to see one of these beasts.

Woodrat middens are often comprised mostly of leaves, but the curious mammals are attracted to all manner of objects, especially shiny ones. It's not uncommon to find pop can tabs, pieces of glass or metal, rocks, and freshly cut plant material in the middens. Woodrats also have the interesting habit of often strewing dried leaves about the floor of the rocky recesses in which they reside, as perhaps the crackling of the leaves warns them of approaching predators.

Ten or more years ago, Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum's Eulett Center within the Edge of Appalachia Preserve took me into a sinkhole cavern in Adams County on a woodrat hunting quest. While we didn't see any, we knew they were there as fresh fern cuttings were neatly laid upon many of the cave's rocky ledges, as if the woodrat was keeping current with its interior decorating.

The Allegheny Woodrat is in precipitous decline over much of its range, and its fate is unknown. It formerly occurred from Connecticut and New York south through the Appalachians to northern North Carolina and Alabama, but is now gone or reduced to perilously low numbers in many if not most areas. They once occurred more widely in Ohio, such as in the Hocking Hills, but are now absent from all former areas other than the tiny area of Adams County where we saw the animal featured here. Perhaps fewer than 100 woodrats remain in the state.

Threats are many, including logging and other habitat destruction, human disturbance of their cliff-face habitat, and isolation of populations due to habitat fragmentation. Greatly reduced populations may become more vulnerable to extreme winter weather events. But perhaps the greatest threat to the Allegheny Woodrat comes in the form of raccoons, and an associated disease, Raccoon Roundworm. Woodrats contract the disease when they scavenge raccoon scat and mine it for undigested nuts and other plant fruit. The disease is fatal to the woodrats, and as raccoon populations have boomed in most areas, the likelihood of woodrats encountering the roundworm has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, recent work with woodrats may be producing solutions to these issues, especially the raccoon roundworm, so there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Here in Ohio, the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy deserves kudos for their acquisition and protection of our only remaining woodrat stronghold.

Video by John Howard

I'll conclude with this wonderful video by John Howard. It brings out the charm of these most interesting of Appalachian mammals, and I hope that a brighter future is in store for the Allegheny Woodrat.


Auralee said...

With apologies for the This is Spinal Tap reference, on a 1-10 scale of cute, this little guy is an 11! What an interesting post.

Hamanda said...

Oh, yes - Velveteen Cliff-Mouse would be a GREAT name!
It recalls the Fawlty Towers episode concerning the Siberian Filigree Hamster . . .

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