Eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana)
|Also known as:||Key Largo woodrat, packrat|
|Size||Length: 300 - 450 mm (2)|
|Weight||174 - 384 g (2)|
- The eastern woodrat is a large species of woodrat, found all over south-eastern USA.
- Eastern woodrats build houses out of sticks to protect the nest from the rain and cold during the winter, although they are used year round.
- Young eastern woodrats attach themselves to their mother’s teats for up to four weeks, only rarely letting go, and may get dragged along the ground.
- Eastern woodrats are born with blind and with almost no hair, but are fully furred with their eyes open after around 15 days.
The eastern woodrat is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana) is a large species of the genus, Neotoma (3) (4). Males weigh around 300 grams on average, with females generally weighing less than 250 grams (2).
Eastern woodrats have large, rounded, leaf-like ears that are nearly hairless (3) (5) (6). They have large black eyes, long whiskers and white paws (3) (5) (6).
The tail is hairy, dark brown above and white below, and is slightly shorter in length than the body and head combined (5) (6) (7). The eastern woodrat is short-haired and bi coloured, with a brownish-grey back and a creamy white belly (3) (5) (6) (7).
The eastern woodrat is present across most of south-eastern USA (5). It can be found in southern Illinois and south through Kentucky and Tennessee to Alabama. Further east, it is seen in south-western North Carolina, through South Carolina and Georgia, and in northern and central Florida. The species also occurs as far west as Colorado and eastern Texas (5) (7).
The eastern woodrat is a habitat generalist found in a range of different habitats, from coastal to mountain regions (4) (6) (7). It is often found in rocky areas, and is known to nest under rocks and boulders (5) (6) (7). In woodland areas, the eastern woodrat will nest beneath hollow logs or stumps and piles of wooden debris (5).
Eastern woodrats are nocturnal and are active all year round (5) (8). Their occupancy of an area can be identified via the presence of a large bulky nest with a nearby ‘latrine’ consisting of a pile of droppings (5) (6).
Eastern woodrats nest in a range of different locations, including hollow trees and logs, man-made structures and natural underground chambers (2) (7) (8) (9). They also build extensive stick ‘houses’ to nest inside, which vary in shape and size depending on the location (2) (6) (7). The species has also been called the packrat because of its tendency to build these bulky structures out of sticks (5). The ‘houses’ are built as effective protection from rain and cold, and usually measure between 0.6 and 1 metre in height (2) (7). More than one eastern woodrat nest may be found inside each structure, which is continually maintained and added to (2) (6) (7). The inside of the nest is filled with material shredded by the woodrat using its teeth, and shaped using its head and forefeet (7).
Eastern woodrats produce relatively few young compared to most similarly sized rodents (5). They breed 2 or 3 times per year, with the female eastern woodrat giving birth to a litter of 1 to 6 pups, after a gestation period of around 35 days (5) (7) (9). A litter most commonly contains two pups (7).
Woodrats are born nearly naked, blind, helpless, and unsteady, with their incisors already erupted (2) (5) (7) (9). They immediately attach themselves firmly to their mother’s teats, and remain attached for the majority of three or four weeks (2) (5). Eastern woodrat pups have been observed being dragged along the ground when the female leaves the nest, without apparently being harmed (5).
Young eastern woodrats go through a rapid transformation in the first few weeks, and are fully furred with their eyes open after about 15 days (5) (7) (9). Weaning occurs at about four weeks, their weight increases rapidly until the end of the third month, and they are fully grown and start breeding when they are around eight months old (3) (5) (7).
The eastern woodrat is an opportunistic feeder, eating all types of vegetation including berries, stems, seeds, buds, tubers, nuts and mushrooms (5) (6) (7). While they are almost entirely herbivorous, they do sometimes eat insects (5) (6). They are good climbers, and have been known to forage in trees (5). The eastern woodrat stores food throughout the winter months in its nest, with some plants found left on rocks, possibly for ‘haying’ to keep over winter (7). Food storing starts around September or October, and although foraging does occur throughout the winter months, the majority of food is consumed on the spot (7).
Habitat loss and isolation as a result of development is a significant threat to the eastern woodrat, particularly in coastal regions. Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar) caterpillars and Sudden Oak Death (SOD) can both be fatal for oak trees, which are an important food source for the eastern woodrat. SOD is an introduced fungus that can result in the death of mature oak trees, and is thought to spread via air-borne spores that thrive in the warm, humid climate of south-eastern USA (6).
The most important predators of the eastern woodrat include the pilot blacksnake (Pantherophis obsoletus) and the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) (7). Predation on nests may be inadvertently increased by placing paths near suitable nesting spots and therefore increasing accessibility to the nests (6).
Another threat to the eastern woodrat is parasites (7) (6). The variety and impact of parasites on woodrats depends on their location (7). In some areas, botfly larvae are the most important, in others it is the roundworm, which is carried by racoons (7). Eastern woodrats in the Florida Keys have fleas that are characteristic of grey squirrels, not woodrats (7).
The eastern woodrat has been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the name ‘Key Largo woodrat’ (5).
Over 162,000 acres of land in the mountains of South Carolina are protected through large holdings in a variety of public ownerships and nonprofit conservation organisations. Some habitat is preserved in midland and coastal areas through various preserves and sanctuaries (6).
Find out more about the eastern woodrat and its conservation:
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources
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- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name. Nocturnal: active at night.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Incisors: the front or cutting teeth.
- Larva: immature stage in an animal’s lifecycle, after it hatches from an egg and before it changes into the adult form. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but are usually unable to reproduce.
- Nocturnal: active at night.
IUCN Red List (November, 2013)
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: North American Mammals (November, 2013)
- Hoffmeister, D.F. (2002) Mammals of Illinois. University of Illinois Press.
- Kurten, B. (1980) Pleistocene Mammals of North America. Columbia University Press, New York.
- Brown, L.N. (1997) A Guide to the Mammals of the Southeastern United States. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (November, 2013)
- Whitaker, J.O. and Hamilton, W.J. (1998) Mammals of the Eastern United States. Cornell University Press, New York.
- Nawrot, J.R. and Spitzkeit, J. (1986) Eastern Woodrat Recovery - Phase 1: Habitat Protection and Population Enhancement. Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
- Pearson, P.G. (1952) Observations concerning the life history and ecology of the woodrat,Neotoma floridana floridana. Journal of Mammalogy, American Society of Mammalogists, 33: 459 - 463.