Woodrat Hunting With CMC’s Zoology Curator
By: Heather Farrington, Curator of Zoology
During the second week of last November, I spent a couple of days at the Museum Center’s Edge of Appalachia preserve looking for my newest study organism – the Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister). This species is endangered in Ohio and is found only in Adams County (the outskirts of their primary range through the Appalachian Mountains). These little guys live on rocky outcrops in small caves and crevasses, which are abundant on our preserve. The Allegheny woodrat is a “packrat,” storing food such as nuts, seeds and leaves in a stash called a midden. The woodrats don’t just store food, though, they like to collect little trinkets they find in the woods, like feathers, bones, shells and even things people leave behind like coins, bullet casings from hunters, bottle caps and small plastic items. You never know what you’ll find in a woodrat midden! Woodrats are most active at night, so they are rarely seen. Rather than look for the woodrats themselves, we look for their middens to determine where they occur.
Unfortunately, a new threat to this species has been detected in our forests – the raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis). This parasite lives in the intestines of raccoons and sheds its eggs in the raccoon feces. Woodrats are exposed to the eggs through raccoon scat. When contracted by the woodrats, the parasite attacks the central nervous system and ultimately causes death. Increasing raccoon population densities over the past several decades means greater infection rates in raccoons, more roundworm eggs being shed and an increased likelihood that a woodrat can become infected with the parasite.
This fall, a team of researchers is searching the rocky cliffs of Adams County to develop an accurate survey of potential woodrat habitat, and collecting raccoon scat samples to test for roundworm presence. Next year, we will be capturing woodrats to gather information on population size and demographics (age and sex of individuals), as well as taking genetic samples to examine the population at the molecular level. From the genetic information, we hope to discover how closely related woodrats in a given area are, how far they disperse (move) when they leave the nest, if our populations are small enough to suffer from inbreeding and set the baseline for continued monitoring efforts in the future. The genetics work will be done in the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Molecular Ecology and Systematics Lab (the DNA lab, for short).
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