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'Elusive creature' captured on camera by wildlife officials

The small species is listed as threatened and protected under the Game and Wildlife Code and as a priority species in a U.S. Wildlife Action Plan.
'Elusive creature' captured on camera by wildlife officials
Posted at 10:34 PM, Apr 11, 2024

U.S. forestry officials got a rare sight when they spotted a small "elusive" federally protected creature, usually around 17 inches long, scurrying across the ground in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest. 

Seen in dark, somewhat grainy video, the little species, once common to Pennsylvania's mountains, has now dwindled to only around an estimated 100,000 left in the wild, the U.S. Forest Service said. 

Neotoma magister, or the Allegheny woodrat, has "nearly disappeared" in areas where it once thrived, and the reason is largely a mystery. Experts say it could be a mix of factors though, including habitat destruction

Scientists believe the gypsy moth is also to blame, because they harm their beloved acorn-producing oak trees. 

Why small species matter

Small species are often the part of an ecosystem that maintain "the fabric of the world around us," as Michael Samways wrote in an article published by Smithsonian Magazine

Pollinating soil and flowers, spreading seeds and maintaining the fertility of the land are key results of the behaviors of small species. As Samways writes, animals like birds would lose food sources, and soil formation would halt in many areas without small species. 

Native rodents play a key role in the health of grasslands and the forest, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes. These species are also an important source of food for predators and scavengers like bobcats, wolves, foxes and hawks. 

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The Allegheny woodrat is a relative to the packrats of the West, and is more mouse-like in the appearance of its tail and color. They are considered to be largely solitary creatures who tolerate each other during mating season. 

The species of rodent has been tracked since at least the early 1900s when it was determined that the American chestnut may have been a significant and important source of food, the Pennsylvania Game Commission reported. They nest deep into rock outcrops and mostly bear litter sizes of only around two or three offspring. 

In the 1990s a study found that an increase in great horned owls — as the barriers between forested areas and agricultural fields increasingly grew — put woodrat populations under more pressure to survive. And tiffs over den sites in rocky areas and caves between the rodents, and increasing populations of porcupines could have also had an effect on the woodrats' dwindling numbers over the years. 

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