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Rats? Ew, gross!
That’s a pretty typical response when thinking about rats. But maybe that’s because you’ve never met a dusky-footed woodrat, a civilized species with outside toilets, building codes, attention to interior design and tight-nit communities.
Got a second? Join me on a tour of the woodrat nest and it might just change your perspective.
For starters, a woodrat’s home is more like a “mansion” and not just a “nest”. They are multiple stories, complete with terraces, hallways and a suite of rooms each with a specific purpose.
The most important of these rooms is the sleeping quarters, which are not just for sleeping, they are where they give birth and nurse their offspring. Naturally, they need to be the safest room in the house, so they are strategically placed under large rocks or logs.
And, to make things cozy, they are lined with shredded bark. When available, woodrats also spread California bay laurel leaves around the edges of these rooms. Nibbling on the edges of these leaves releases powerful oil that kills flea larva and other nasty parasites. And, just to keep things super fresh, they’ll replace these leaves every couple days.
Woodrats are hoarders and store their food in special rooms within the nest – typically one for fungi, one for leaves and a third for acorns. The theory is that each of these rooms has a different climate suited for the drying needs of the food source. Climate controlled pantry? I know, pretty clever. In fact, the rumor is that Native Americans would sometimes use these woodrat pantries to store their own food sources, knowing the food would never go bad.
The woodrat’s outhouse is typically placed just outside the back door, conveniently located for when nature calls. Woodrat nests are passed down from generation to generation and some nests are in active use for as many as sixty years! Over the years, crystallized urine begins to build up at the nest’s outhouse.
Ok, I admit, that is kind of gross. However, in drier areas, where these piles are well preserved, scientists are using radiocarbon dating to study the material trapped in these crystalized urine piles. In some instances, they’re finding material more than forty thousand years old!
That’s the end of our tour. What do you think? Did you enjoy yourself? Learn something? I hope so and that as your family and friends gather in warm, well decorated houses to celebrate the holiday season, you’ll think of the woodrat and enjoy in the similarities of our elaborate “nests”.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 79,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more