Wildlife managers in all Chesapeake Bay states have joined forces in perhaps a last-ditch effort to save the Allegheny woodrat. Notwithstanding its name, the squirrel-sized rodent is more closely related to mice and hamsters than to the infamous brown or brown rat. Often described as “cute”, it is a mischievous and secretive, yet inquisitive animal important to forest ecosystems.
Populations of the Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) live primarily in burrows in mountaintop rock fields, caves, and rocky outcrops in forested settings. They have been in decline for decades in the Bay States – and have completely disappeared in some places. They may have completely disappeared in the uplands of New York State.
The acceleration of the fainting is thought to have been hastened by new perils, including a deadly parasite spread by raccoons to wood rats picking up their berry-filled droppings.
Add to that genetic infirmities due to inbreeding and the increasing defoliation of oak trees by gypsy moths (also called gypsy moths) – which deprive wood rats of acorns, an essential food source.
In Virginia, there are about 160 woodrats in 75 documented locations, but at least 100 old sites are now empty. The Appalachian mountain hideouts are home to most of the population.
Recent camera-assisted trapping of wood rats in Pennsylvania shows that of more than 500 historic colony sites, 68% are now empty. A group of 29 members disappeared in a single year. Some say the statewide population has fallen to a few thousand at most.
In Maryland, about half of the 108 occupied sites documented between 1990 and 1992 are now free of woodrats. Woodrats have been found in western Maryland, but are no longer found in Frederick County or near Great Falls on the Potomac River in Montgomery County.
“In West Virginia and Virginia, we just see sites disappearing,” said Richard Reynolds, wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
“We’re trying to…put a finger in the dike,” said Justin Vreeland, wildlife management supervisor at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, summarizing the new 13-state collaboration to try to bring the woodworm back from the brink. .
Many see it as the benchmark for a larger ecological problem.
“I think they’re a pretty good indicator of forest health,” said Greg Turner, supervisor of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s nongame mammal section. “[Their decline suggests] that things are not going well at all there.
Woodrats are thought to be important cogs in the dispersal of tree and plant species beneficial to forests and animals.
“I just think they’re part of the ecosystem and an indication of the stability of your environment and the diversity that’s out there,” Reynolds said.
Nocturnal woodrats are native to the United States, from Georgia in the south, north to Connecticut (where no woodrats have been found in decades) and as far west as Indiana.
Chestnuts have long been their primary food source, so the demise of American chestnut trees to blight in the early 1900s was a major blow. Acorns have been a lifesaver, but due to excessive deer browsing and other factors, including gypsy moths, oak regeneration is suffering.
The challenges don’t end there. Although woodrats do not venture far from their colonies, forest fragmentation prevents the establishment of new colonies elsewhere. Stuck in islets of rocks and caves, their health suffers from inbreeding and the resulting lack of genetic diversity.
Invasive plants crowd out native berry plants and fungi that are also part of the woodrat’s diet. And woodrats themselves are a favorite prey of snakes, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, owls, fishers and other carnivores.
Yet in the past two years, 13 states have launched unprecedented efforts focused not just on stabilizing woodrat numbers, but on increasing them. They share successes, failures, and even woodworms themselves.
All Bay States have listed woodrats as a species of most concern and have developed action plans to help them. Pennsylvania is a leader in this effort.
Current or planned steps include planting cross-bred versions of American chestnut trees near colony sites, establishing a supplemental supply of acorns and chestnuts, and preparing forest sites to encourage oak growth. Actions also include spreading deworming vaccines in fishmeal bait piles to inoculate raccoons against roundworms, moving wood rats to other colonies, and creating rocky sites to serve as emigration routes.
“We were able to show that we could stabilize some sites through our actions. We want to figure out which of our tools work and then scale up,” said Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
On a limited scale, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia captured some of their woodrats and traded them to other states to increase genetic diversity.
The Bay States also hope to participate in a proposed captive breeding effort for the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the Toledo Zoo in Ohio.
“We want to be at the reception. We have a lot of open habitat for woodrats that are unoccupied,” said Dan Feller, who has studied woodrats for more than 30 years as a regional ecologist for the Wildlife and Heritage Service of Maryland.
Why save a species that many people don’t even know exists?
Feller, abandoning his scientific detachment for a moment, revealed his affection for the wood rat. “They all have stunning views,” he noted of their choice of high-rise homes. “They’re not as aloof as a lot of wild animals. I had them come back after releasing them from a trap and crawling up my pant leg and chewing on my shoelaces. He’s one of my favorite animals, that’s for sure.
Many scientists who study the wood rat are amused by the animal’s pack rat habits (species in the genus Neotoma are usually referred to as “pack rats”). Their nests are often decorated with human artifacts such as stolen bottle caps, shotgun shells, and pieces of flagstone.
Wildlife managers find hope in collaborative rescue efforts.
“They’re tough little buggers,” said Mario Giazzon, a wildlife diversity biologist at the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “When you talk about all the impacts this rat has faced, the fact that it still persists is quite amazing.
“I think his recovery potential is pretty good. We just have to act fast enough and efficiently.
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