June Surprises

June is often the most exciting month of the year. Then I can count on close encounters with black bears on our trails. Not only are last year’s cubs on their own, but their mothers are being hotly pursued by eager males.

northern brown snake

northern brown snake (photo by Paula Scott)

We also add new species to Bioplum, a natural inventory of our property. But last June 5 we added a record three species in one day. Our caretaker family — Troy and Paula Scott — found a northern brown snake in their yard and promptly photographed it. Formerly named DeKay’s brown snake—Storeria dekayi dekayi—its species name still honors nineteenth century naturalist James Edward DeKay. According to Amphibians and Reptiles of Pennsylvania and the Northeastby Hulse, McCoy, and Censky, the northern brown snake “reaches its greatest densities in and around abandoned human habitation.” That made sense because the Scotts’ home is directly above the derelict home of our deceased neighbor, Margaret McHugh.

Later in the day, the Scotts saw a painted turtle on our road. It was probably a female looking for a nesting site because from late May to early July they leave slow-moving water in search of a gentle slope exposed to the sun in which to deposit their eggs.

I was disappointed to miss those two new species, but I was able to see the third new one of the day. Our friend, Lucy Boyce, who specializes in native plants, spent several hours with our son Dave in our three-acre deer exclosure, searching for new plants. The phone rang, and Dave told me to come and see two wild coffee plants — Triosteum perfoliatum — blooming in the wet, overgrown section of the exclosure.

Frankly, I had never heard of wild coffee, also called perfoliate horse gentian, fever-root, feverwort, and tinker’s-weed. Its erect stem has several pairs of large, opposite, oval, pointed leaves that meet and surround the stem. In the axils of the leaves grow reddish-brown or greenish elongated, bell-shaped flowers. It likes rich, moist woods and thickets, such as ours, and flowers in May and early June.

Wild coffee plant

Wild coffee (photo: Dave Bonta)

But even better than finding new species and seeing bears on our trails last June was my unexpected encounter with a rare animal. On a gorgeous day in mid-June, I slowly ascended Big Tree Trail on Sapsucker Ridge. It was a pleasant 63 degrees at 9:00 a.m. as I continued my walk along our forested ridgetop.

Suddenly, I saw what I thought was a small gray squirrel coming towards me. It ran to a tree, climbed about three feet from the ground, and clung to the tree trunk. But instead of a fluffy tail, its tail was very long, thin, and sparsely-haired. Then it turned its head toward me and it didn’t look like the face of a squirrel, but like that of an overgrown white-footed mouse. I had only time to notice its large, roundish, shell-shaped ears, and its big, dark eyes before it jumped off the tree and disappeared. But I was almost certain that it was an Allegheny woodrat.

Years ago, on October 4, 1989 — my husband Bruce and our eldest son Steve had a perfect view of an Allegheny woodrat while driving up our hollow road at 10:45 p.m. What the woodrat was doing there was a mystery because its habitat, as described then in the literature, didn’t fit the supposed requirements of an Allegheny woodrat. They live in caves and talus slopes and the nearest talus slope on the far side of Sapsucker Ridge was farther away than a woodrat’s range.

Cal Butchkoski often squeezes into tight places in search of Allegheny woodrats

Cal Butchkoski often squeezes into tight places in search of Allegheny woodrats (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Their intriguing sighting led me to learn more about this native packrat. And, the following autumn, Bruce and I accompanied PGC Wildlife Technician Cal Butchkoski, as he climbed a hundred foot high rock outcropping in an old-growth hemlock forest. As part of a study by the Game Commission that began in 1982, he had set 40 live traps baited with apples for woodrats in the caves and crevices the evening before and wanted to release any captives as quickly as possible to minimize stress on the animals.

But when he released a male on my lap so Bruce could take photographs, the woodrat seemed anything but stressed. He spent several long, camera-clicking minutes climbing on my jean-clad legs before leaping gracefully to the floor of the cave and disappearing under a dead pile of leaves that was, in reality, his home. Made of sticks, shredded bark, grass and dried leaves, woodrat homes range in shape from cone-shaped to flattened.

At that time, Butchkoski showed us pencil-eraser-sized droppings in its latrine site under a nearby ledge which serve as a signpost for anyone looking for woodrats. These droppings last for decades and, depending on their condition, researchers can determine whether or not woodrats are still in residence. Needless to say, Bruce and our sons combed the talus slopes on Sapsucker Ridge but didn’t find any latrines.

Male Allegheny woodrat posing on author's lap

Male Allegheny woodrat posing on author’s lap (photo: Bruce Bonta)

While Bruce’s and Steve’s sighting seemed unusual because of the woodrat’s distance from its rock habitat, mine was equally surprising because Allegheny woodrats are nocturnal. On the other hand, even though it has been 20 years since I last looked into the ecology of Allegheny woodrats, researchers are still puzzled by many aspects of their lives.

Much has changed too. Back then the Allegheny woodrat was considered to be a subspecies of the eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana) which ranges south to Florida and west to Colorado. It had lost its original species status Neotoma magister in 1957 when researchers had relegated it to subspecies status based on comparative studies of eastern woodrat skulls and skins. But using new molecular methods, researchers conducted mitochondrial DNA analyses of 114 woodrats from 33 locations and proved that Allegheny woodrats are indeed a separate species from eastern woodrats. In 1997 they were once again listed as Neotoma magister in the Revised Checklist of North American Mammals.

Furthermore, Allegheny woodrats are ecologically distinct from eastern woodrats because they live almost exclusively in caves, boulder fields, and talus slopes consisting of sandstone and/or limestone—so-called rock habitats. They build their nests on cave ledges, like the one we saw with Butchkoski, or in rock crevices

Cal Butchkoski weighs an Allegheny woodrat

Cal Butchkoski weighs an Allegheny woodrat (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Females claim the best habitats to construct their nests and raise their young. They breed as early as mid-March in Pennsylvania, and, after about 35 days, give birth to one to four naked, blind young. Their eyes open at two-and-a-half weeks, and they nurse until they are a month old. Then, although they may remain with their mother for a while, they begin to do their own foraging for leaves, fruit, mast, fungi, and even twigs. Once they are on their own, they build individual nests, because woodrats are solitary animals except during the breeding season. They don’t hibernate so they are busy collecting and drying food, such as fungi and fern fronds, to stuff into crevices for winter consumption. For the most part, they “exhibit high site fidelity and low dispersal rates,” according to researchers.

But Dr. Janet Wright and her students of Dickinson College, radiotracked an adult male for two years. He moved suddenly 3.6 miles along a ridgetop to a new site. She also discovered that woodrats will travel “considerable distances beyond the protection of rock slides in search of food and mates.”

Another researcher, Dr. Petra Bohall Wood, in West Virginia, found that woodrats, particularly males, do move away from their birth site between their juvenile and adult years. From these studies and others I looked at, I hypothesized that the woodrat I encountered still had its grayer youngster coat and was either searching for food or dispersing. The previous fall had been a terrific mast year when woodrats are especially prolific so perhaps young woodrats were more inclined to find a new home. And that woodrat Bruce and Steve saw years before was probably also dispersing.

There is another extensive talus slope less than a mile away on our neighbor’s property. Unfortunately, it had been heavily logged the previous year which may have sent any woodrats living there in search of a new home, because recent studies seem to indicate that the best habitat surrounding rocky areas should include an oak/hickory forest rich in mast. In fact, a large intact forest buffer 1.2 miles from the forest edge is ideal, something we don’t have below our talus slopes but do on our ridgetop.

Pennsylvania is thought to have five percent of the world’s population of Allegheny woodrats. Most of the population is now in the Appalachian south, although more study of populations needs to be done in those areas. It has gone extinct in Connecticut, New York, and the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania where it used to be common. Pennsylvania has relegated Allegheny woodrats to threatened status, and they are protected under the Game and Wildlife Code. Game Commission biologists, including Butchkoski, have been engaged in long-term monitoring to find out how dense populations are at each site. Previously, from 1982 to 2006, Pennsylvania biologists conducted 1,255 surveys at 802 habitat sites and found evidence of current or former woodrat occupation at 443 sites. Of those sites, 246 were still active and 197 were not. They hope to maintain breeding populations in the Appalachian Plateau, Ridge and Valley Province, and the upper Susquehanna River drainage.

The Allegheny woodrat returns to his home after release

The Allegheny woodrat returns to his home after release (photo: Bruce Bonta)

But why are Allegheny woodrats disappearing? That question has haunted researchers from the beginning, and over the years a number of suggestions have been made. After all, their rock habitats are not very accessible to most people. Researcher Kathleen LoGludice summed up biologists’ hypotheses in The Allegheny Woodrat; Ecology, Conservation and Management of a Declining Species edited by J.D. Peles and Janet Wright. First and foremost, is a decrease in food that began with the disappearance of the predictable, yearly crop of American chestnuts and then the woodrats tried to adjust to boom-and-bust acorn cycles, especially during years of heavy gypsy moth infestation when oaks are too stressed to produce any acorns.

Habitat fragmentation caused by new or widened roads, quarries, industrial wind farms, utility lines, communication towers, and natural gas drilling rigs makes it increasingly difficult for woodrats to move safely from one rock habitat to another.

Finally, as packrats, they collect both edible and inedible material. One “midden,” as it is called, examined in Centre County in 1941, contained three quarts of deer pellets. Three other middens discovered by the same researcher yielded a baseball cover, can labels, a cigarette pack, cloth, a shoe heel, yarn, rusty tin cans and pieces of string. None of these items pose a threat to Allegheny woodrats. But as their habitat fragments and residential and agricultural fields move closer, generalist species, especially raccoons, increase. With raccoons come raccoon roundworm which is fatal to woodrats that collect and eat raccoon feces.

Raccoons also prey on woodrats as do great horned owls, coyotes, weasels, fishers, and black rat snakes. We certainly have abundant numbers of these creatures on our property. And hopefully my sighting is a sign that we have a population of Allegheny woodrats too.

Female Allegheny woodrat with two babies by Alan Cressler

Neotoma magister, female and two babies, Lowe Gap cave, Bledsoe County, TN (Creative Commons-licensed photo by Alan Cressler)

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For more information on this charismatic animal, consult the Pennsylvania Game Commission website. The Allegheny Woodrat: Ecology, Conservation and Management of a Declining Species, edited by J.D. Peles and Janet Wright, is also an excellent source.