Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister)

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Female Allegheny woodrat nursing young
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Allegheny woodrat fact file

Allegheny woodrat description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderRodentia
FamilyCricetidae
GenusNeotoma (1)

The Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) is a medium-sized North American rodent which superficially resembles the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) in appearance (5). Its upperparts are grey to brownish-grey, slightly lighter on the sides, and the underparts are white (2) (4) (5) (6). The tops of the feet are also white (2). In winter, the Allegheny woodrat’s fur becomes slightly darker and longer (5). Adults typically have browner upperparts than juveniles (4).

The tail of the Allegheny woodrat is moderately hairy and distinctly bi-coloured, being dark above and white below (2) (4) (5). This species has relatively large ears and long, thick whiskers (2) (4). Although male and female Allegheny woodrats are similar in appearance, males are usually heavier (5).

This species was previous considered to be a subspecies of the Key Largo or eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana), but has since been separated on the basis of differences in its skull and its genetics (1) (2) (3) (4) (6). The Allegheny woodrat can be distinguished from the brown rat and other Rattus species by its larger ears and more hairy, bi-coloured tail (2) (5).

Also known as
Appalachian woodrat, Appalacian woodrat.
Size
Head-body length: 20 - 24.5 cm (2)
Tail length: 14.1 - 21 cm (3) (4)
Weight
193.6 - 455 g (3)
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Allegheny woodrat biology

Like other woodrats, the Allegheny woodrat builds a large ‘house’ or nest from sticks, leaves, roots and other materials. The nest of this species is typically built in an inaccessible, well-protected rock crevice or on a ledge in a cave, and consists of an open cup, not unlike the nest of a bird (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). It is usually a fairly large structure, measuring up to 60 centimetres across, with an inner cavity about 12 centimetres across (1) (4). The nest may be lined with shredded bark, grass, fur, rootlets or feathers (1) (3).

The Allegheny woodrat also constructs large piles of sticks and debris, known as ‘middens’, near to the nest. The middens may be used to store food, but also commonly contain miscellaneous items such as bark, bones, feathers, animal dung and even human trash. The function of this collecting is unknown (1) (3) (4) (5). Its tendency to collect many different types of objects has earned this and other woodrats the nickname ‘packrats’ (2) (5) (6). The Allegheny woodrat also leaves characteristic piles of droppings on ledges near its nest (3) (4).

This nocturnal rodent is active year-round (5) (6), but may not move as far from its rocky habitats in late autumn and winter, when food is more scarce (4). During this time, the Allegheny woodrat may rely on food stored in its middens (8). The diet of the Allegheny woodrat includes a variety of leaves, seeds, fruits, ferns, fungi and lichens, with nuts such as acorns being particularly important (1) (3) (4) (5) (8). Occasional insects may also be taken (8). Predators of the Allegheny woodrat include owls, skunks, snakes, bobcats, foxes, weasels and hawks (1) (5).

The Allegheny woodrat is largely solitary, territorial, and intolerant of other individuals, with fights being common (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). In captivity, dominant individuals occupy and defend their own nest sites, but the subordinates may live in groups, avoiding the dominant animals (3) (4) (5). If kept at high densities, this species shows high levels of aggression (4), and dominant individuals have been known to kill or wound all other group members (9).

The breeding season of the Allegheny woodrat varies with location, but young are commonly born from early spring to late summer, between March and October (4) (5). In some locations, breeding can take place throughout the year (4) (10). The female Allegheny woodrat gives birth to a litter of around 1 to 4 pups (2) (4), after a gestation period of 30 to 38 days (4) (5). The young are born naked but begin to grow fur after about five days. The Allegheny woodrat is fully furred by two weeks old and weaned by about four weeks (4) (5). Although this species can reach sexual maturity at around three to four months old (4), most individuals do not breed until the second year of life (5). Female Allegheny woodrats can produce up to four litters a year when conditions are favourable (2) (5).

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Allegheny woodrat range

Sometimes known as the Appalachian woodrat, the Allegheny woodrat once occurred through the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, south to northern Alabama and North Carolina, and west to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The southern limit of its range is marked by the Tennessee River (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (7).

The range of the Allegheny woodrat has now been much reduced, and the species has been lost from New York, Connecticut, and much of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (7).

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Allegheny woodrat habitat

The Allegheny woodrat is associated with rocky areas such as cliffs, rocky outcrops, caves, rock crevices, boulder fields and talus slopes (sloping masses of loose rock at the base of cliffs) (1) (2) (3) (4) (5). These areas are largely devoid of vegetation, but the Allegheny woodrat visits nearby forest of various types to feed (1) (4) (5).

This species occurs at fairly high elevations, up to about 1,000 metres (1). The Allegheny woodrat occasionally uses abandoned buildings, but generally avoids humans (1) (3).

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Allegheny woodrat status

The Allegheny woodrat is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Allegheny woodrat threats

The Allegheny woodrat has declined across much of its range, particularly in the north (2) (3) (5) (6), although populations in the south are believed to be more stable (1). The reasons for this decline are unclear, but may be due to a combination of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, human disturbance, disease and climate change (1) (4) (5) (7).

Habitat loss in the form of deforestation not only decreases the Allegheny woodrat’s food supplies, but also makes it more difficult for the species to travel between the rocky areas it requires for nest sites (1) (5). Its food supply may be further reduced by the infestation of oak trees by the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) (1) (5) (7), and its historical decline may also be linked to a decline in the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) (1) (4).

Another major threat to the Allegheny woodrat is infection by the raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis), a parasite transmitted by racoons that is often fatal to woodrats (1) (3) (5) (7) (11). The Allegheny woodrat may be particularly vulnerable to this parasite due to its habit of collecting animal faeces, including infected raccoon dung (1) (3) (11).

Further threats to the Allegheny woodrat may come from mining, human disturbance in caves, and severe winter weather, which could potentially be compounded by the effects of climate change (1) (7). Although it has a relatively widespread distribution, the Allegheny woodrat relies on rather patchy areas of suitable rocky habitat, and its populations are often small and localised, increasing the risk of extinction (1) (7)

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Allegheny woodrat conservation

The Allegheny woodrat occurs in a number of protected areas, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, and the Deam Nature Preserve, in Indiana (1). It is also afforded some protection simply by the inaccessible nature of its cliff and cave habitats, which are usually unsuitable for development (1) (5). However, the surrounding forest habitats on which the Allegheny woodrat also depends need greater protection, as do its key food resources, such as oak stands (5) (8). Maintaining suitable habitat will also be important in allowing individuals to move between otherwise isolated populations (1).

Further conservation measures recommended for this North American rodent include monitoring its populations and continuing research into the causes of its decline (1) (5) (7). Raccoons infected with Baylisascaris procyonis could potentially be treated with drugs to reduce parasite transmission (5), and the Allegheny woodrat would also benefit from further protection from mining, logging and excessive human disturbance (1).

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Find out more

Find out more about the Allegheny woodrat and its conservation:

More information on the conservation of North American rodents:

  • Hafner, D.J., Yensen, E. and Kirkland Jr, G.L. (1998) North American Rodents: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Rodent Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1998-039.pdf
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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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Glossary

Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Lichen
A composite organism made up of a fungus in a co-operative partnership with an alga. Owing to this partnership, lichens can thrive in harsh environments such as mountaintops and polar regions. Characteristically forms a crustlike or branching growth on rocks or tree trunks.
Nocturnal
Active at night.
Parasite
An organism that derives its food from, and lives in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Reid, F.A. (2006) A Field Guide to Mammals of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  3. Whitaker Jr, J.O. and Hamilton Jr, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
  4. Castleberry, S.B., Mengak, M.T. and Ford, W.M. (2006) Neotoma magister. Mammalian Species, 789: 1-5. Available at:
    http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/Biology/VHAYSSEN/msi/pdf/i1545-1410-789-1-1.pdf
  5. Beans, B.E. and Niles, L. (2003) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.
  6. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  7. Hafner, D.J., Yensen, E. and Kirkland Jr, G.L. (1998) North American Rodents: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Rodent Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1998-039.pdf
  8. Castleberry, N.L., Castleberry, S.B., Ford, W.M., Wood, P.B. and Mengak, M.T. (2002) Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) food habits in the Central Appalachians. American Midland Naturalist, 147(1): 80-92.
  9. Kinsey, K.P. (1976) Social behaviour in confined populations of the Allegheny woodrat, Neotoma floridana magister. Animal Behaviour, 24(1): 181-187.
  10. Mengak, M.T. (2002) Reproduction, juvenile growth and recapture rates of Allegheny woodrats (Neotoma magister) in Virginia. American Midland Naturalist, 148(1): 155-162.
  11. LoGiudice, K. (2003) Trophically transmitted parasites and the conservation of small populations: raccoon roundworm and the imperiled Allegheny woodrat. Conservation Biology, 17(1): 258-266.
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Female Allegheny woodrat nursing young  
Female Allegheny woodrat nursing young

© Alan Cressler

Alan Cressler
http://www.flickr.com/photos/alan_cressler/

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