Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Do the "rat" thing

18 years ago when I first got to the Edge of Appalachia Preserve (EOA), there were 2 animals that symbolized the uniqueness and rarity of this landscape.  One was the green salamander and the other was a rat.  Rats are not usually the kind of animal you would get excited about, but this rat, the Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister), is a special animal.  At that time, Chris Bedel, the Preserve Director for Cincinnati Museum Center wanted to get the word out about these state endangered rodents.  He was even giving t-shirts with a rat on it to all children visiting the preserve and coined the phrase "Do the Rat Thing".  It turns out that even though historically Allegheny woodrats lived in a possible 8 counties (according to  A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio by Jack L. Gottschang), presently they are only found in southern Adams County, many of these sites on the Edge of Appalachia Preserve.

The state of Ohio is currently doing survey work by visiting historic locations to mark the absence/presence of rats, and collecting raccoon scat to look for the absence/presence of raccoon roundworm that is known to kill the rats.  Woodrats inhabit cliffs with many cracks and broken rock, and/or abandoned buildings left in the forest as home sites.  They do not prefer to live near people, so if you see rats around you house or farm, they are not Allegheny woodrats, but rather the Norway rat.  A non-native species. 
Allegheny woodrat habitat
In order to survey an area that might contain woodrats,  you look for at least one of three things.  A rat, a midden or a latrine.  A latrine is where it relieves itself of excrement, yep, it usually goes to the bathroom in the same place.  A midden is where it stores food, sticks, leaves or basically any junk it wants.  Allegheny woodrats are pack rats.  They love to collect things, and throughout the night, they run around picking up something it wants until it finds something else it wants better.  If you drop a nickel in woodrat country, it will be gone the next day and probably put in the woodrats midden. 

Midden of Allegheny woodrat at new location.
Latrine of Allegheny woodrat at new location.  Yes, that is a large pile of scat.
This makes for an interesting walk in the woods when you come across an old out building or cliff crack and see a pile of junk stuffed into one place.  You know some rat has been there actively collecting things for whatever reason.  I have seen middens with candy wrappers, shot gun shells, nuts, husks, glass pieces, flashlights (left behind from our students and pirated by rats), belt pieces, rubber pieces all collected simply because the rat liked it and couldn't help itself.  Pretty endearing I should say.  This is where the raccoon scat comes into play because if a rat picks up some raccoon scat that contains eggs of the deadly roundworm, and takes it back to the midden, it not only contaminates the midden with an organism capable of killing the rat, but any other rat that visits that midden for possibly the next 7 years.

So to help with the states efforts, we have been mapping out old sites and most importantly looking for new sites of this elusive animal.  Since most of it's home range left in Ohio is on EOA property, we inherit responsibility to know the locations of these rats and how active they are.  On the same trip as an early post about searching for green salamanders, I found 2 latrines and a large midden full of sticks and leaves in a location not known for woodrats.  Some of the leaves were green, so I knew there was an active rat using this location, which looked like the perfect habitat for woodrats.  Since we hardly ever see the rat in person, I thought the best way to know if one was there was to set up a game camera on one of the latrines and the midden.  I left the camera out for 1 week, and after collecting the SD cards, I soon found that there was definitely a rat living there.  See the videos below to watch this cute, yes, I am saying cute rat curiously moving about the cliffs of the preserve.

Both videos above are from the new location.  One is a rat at the latrine playing with some debris and the other is a rat trying to free a belt I stuck under a rock near it's midden.

Just like the green salamanders, I am sure we will find more locations of the Allegheny woodrat within the preserve.  But for the species sake, I hope the state finds them outside this county.  Hopefully in the next year or so, some genetics work will take place to learn the health of the Ohio populations and compare them to other states, where unfortunately they appear to be declining as well.  According to the biologists surveying the woodrat, this species seems to be disappearing across most of it's range in North America, and every little thing we can do to help might make a difference for its survival.  Protecting this large forested area of southern Adams County seems to be a good start.

Posted by: Mark Zloba