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Allegheny Woodrat

The Allegheny woodrat, Neotoma floridana magister, has experienced rapid declines over the last 30 years


Image of An Allegheny woodrat is released after being live-trapped at a NJ Palisades study site.Zoom+ An Allegheny woodrat is released after being live-trapped at a NJ Palisades study site. © Mick Valent

Historically present along the Appalachian Mountains from the Tennessee River north through southeastern New York, woodrats have been disappearing from the northern part of their range since the 1980s. Extirpated from New York and large sections of Pennsylvania, only isolated populations remain in Ohio, Maryland, and in New Jersey at the Palisades. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service considers the Allegheny woodrat a species of concern and New Jersey listed the woodrat as endangered in 1991.

This medium-sized rodent ranges in size from 8 to 9in length with a 6 to 8 in tail. Males can weigh over 10 oz with their smaller female counterparts not exceeding 8.8oz. Both sexes have brownish-gray fur, with white throat, feet, belly, and armpits. Woodrats are distinguished by their large, hairless ears, and a hairy tail that is dark gray above and white below. They have four toes on the front feet and five on the rear. Unlike the Norway rat, an introduced species that is common in urban areas and farms, Allegheny woodrats are meticulously clean, causing no threat to human safety. They play an important role in their ecosystem.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service considers the Allegheny woodrat a species of concern and New Jersey listed the woodrat as endangered in 1991.

Allegheny woodrats occur along mountain ridges in barren rock outcrops, caves, cliffs, and talus fields. Dens are deep in rock fissures, and nests consist of sticks and twigs lined with shredded bark. Woodrats are primarily noctural, venturing out at night to collect buds, seeds, leaves, fruit, nuts, and fungi from nearby forests. A species of Neotoma or packrat, woodrats also collect a variety of non-food objects such as bottlecaps, coins, feathers, and bones; a habit that still perplexes scientists.

Breeding occurs from early spring into the early fall. Allegheny woodrats are not prolific breeders, frequently having only 2 young per litter and 2 litters per year. The young are born hairless and weigh half an ounce. After 5 days they begin to grow hair and by 14 days their coat is full. At 3 weeks their eyes open and they are weaned after four weeks. Most young will not breed until their second year.

Snakes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, hawks, and owls all prey upon the woodrat; however, natural predation is not the cause the woodrat’s dwindling population. Loss of habitat, increased exposure to parasites, and a decrease in food availability are all contributing to the Allegheny woodrat’s declining numbers.

Habitat fragmentation is the leading cause for species decline in New Jersey and the Allegheny woodrat is no exception. Limited to rocky habitats where they can hide and nest out of sight, woodrats also depend on surrounding forests for their food and nesting materials. These forests are becoming increasingly fragmented and disturbed which limits the resources available for the woodrat.

Habitat fragmentation is the leading cause for species decline in New Jersey and the Allegheny woodrat is no exception.

One major cause of woodrat declines is due to the raccoon roundworm, a parasitic nematode that occurs naturally in raccoons’ intestines. Woodrats contract this parasite through roundworm eggs that are shed into raccoon’s scat. Once infected, raccoon roundworm attacks the woodrat’s nervous system and ultimately causes death. Raccoon populations are increasing in number. These subsidized predators have a significant impact on their environment both directly through predation and indirectly by spreading disease like raccoon roundworm.

Food availability is directly related to population fluctuations in rodents, like the woodrat. Following years of abundant mast, the fruit and nuts produced by trees, rodents will have more young; in years of poor mast, rodents will have less. The loss of chestnut, oak, elm, and other fruit-producing hardwoods has caused a decline in food availability and possibly a decline in the population of Allegheny woodrats. Changes in the plant community caused by increased deer browse may also be a factor.

Vigilant monitoring and intensive management by the Endangered and Nongame Species Program and CWF has preserved the last remaining Allegheny woodrat population in New Jersey. Biologists are able to determine the presence of roundworm in local raccoon populations and can treat the animals with medicated bait. Providing supplemental hard mast to the population also helps to preserve this sole population. After 4 years of declining population numbers, a 77% increase in capture rate was recorded from 2008-2010; however, it is too early to tell if this increase is significant.


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