Dusky-footed Woodrat

Dusky-footed woodrat in front of stick house. © 2013 Ken Hickman
Dusky-footed woodrat in front of stick house. © KHickman

Names
Dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes) and San Francisco dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes annectens) are named for their sooty-gray feet. The species name, fuscipes, comes from “fusc“, meaning dusky/sooty, and “pes” , meaning feet (like “ped”), so “fuscipes” means “dusky-footed”. Pronounce “fuscipes” like “fu’-skip-ease”. “Neo” in latin means new and “toma” is “to twin” or “to split”. “Neotoma” is a playful dual pun on the woodrat’s choppers that snip wood in two pieces so easily, and the fact they look like Rattus rats of Europe, but in the “New” World.

Woodrats’ instinct to gather food and sticks also sometimes drives them to pick-up shiny objects, too, which is why they’re also called packrats and trade rats.

Range and Habitat
Neotoma fuscipes is native to oak woodlands and chaparral throughout the Coast Ranges, from Central California into Oregon. Neotoma fuscipes annectens is the regional subspecies of San Francisco and the Santa Cruz Mountains and foothills. Because of this limited range it is a California Subspecies of Special Concern with local protections.

Appearance and Size
Dusky-footed woodrats have brown-gray fur, a white chest, and sooty-gray tops on their feet and sometimes face. The tail is about equal to their 8–10-inch body length and lightly haired—not as naked, long and tapered as Rattus sp., such as the black rat. While similar superficially, they’re not closely related to European Rattus rats, but are genetically closer to deer mice (Peromyscus spp.).

Woodrats eat leaves, flowers, buds, berries, seeds, nuts, acorns and fungi that they forage and collect at night, and store in larders in their houses for future meals.  January 18, 2012 Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve, San Mateo County, California, USA.  Image via licensed camera trap. © 2011 K. Hickman
Woodrat collects coffeeberry leaves at night to cache in den. © KHickman

Don’t Mix Them Up
While similar superficially, woodrats are not closely related to European Rattus rats, but are genetically closer to deer mice (Peromyscus spp.). Woodrats are cleaner than European rats, partly because they’re herbivores, partly because they live solo, but also because they live more cleanly, and have outside latrines where they “poop on the stoop,” instead of inside the house.

What They Eat
Woodrats eat leaves, flowers, buds, berries, seeds, nuts, acorns and fungi that they forage and collect at night, and store in larders in their houses for future meals. Some plants are “aged” to reduce toxins and bitter flavors. Other collected plants, such as bay laurel leaves, help reduce fleas, mites and other parasites in the larders, house, and on the woodrat itself. Favorite foods include poison oak, toyon, coffeeberry, coast live oak, and bay laurel.

Who Eats Them
Predators include coyotes, bobcats, owls, and badgers (but no badgers are at Edgewood).

Right under the feet of the landlord, a yellow-eyed ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica) heads into a dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) stick house.   © 2011 K. Hickman
Right under the feet of the landlord, a yellow-eyed ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica) heads into a woodrat stick house. © KHickman

Life and Behavior
Solo but social, adults generally live alone in houses, but are social and live in neighborhoods. Loosely matriarchal, the females choose mates, sometimes the same male year to year. Males will cede houses to females, and senior females generally occupy the best houses. Typically they just have one litter per year of 2–3 pups, which often ride around on Mom’s belly. Pups stay with Mom for as much as a year, and woodrats can live 6 to 8 years (if not caught by a predator, such as an owl, snake or coyote!). Males disperse furthest, usually less than 500 feet, and daughters tend to stay nearer to Mom, and may even inherit the house from her. Both often look for abandoned “starter houses” when they disperse. Woodrat urine and poop can sometimes contain Hantavirus, so leave their houses alone.

Keystone Builders with Live-in Buddies
Woodrats build fortress-style “stick houses” around hollow trees, logs, rock piles, and the like. The structures have a central nest chamber, larders for vegetation and nut storage, and multiple tunnels, entrances, exits and latrines. Houses protect them from weather and predators, and maintain a consistent habitat for living and long-term food storage. Woodrats sometimes maintain multiple houses, and move among them to forage more broadly. Great climbers, they also occasionally build houses up in trees. Woodrats are a keystone species for their houses, which are relied upon by numerous live-in species, including mice, lizards, snakes, salamanders, frogs, crickets, beetles, and millipedes.

California mouse depends on dusky-footed woodrat for housing.
Some animals, like the California mouse (Peromyscus californicus), are so dependent on the active woodrat houses, that their populations rise and fall with the woodrat’s booms and busts. © KHickman
Alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) headed for home. © 2013 Ken Hickman
Southern Alligator Lizard headed for home. © KHickman

FAQs

All images on this page were taken via licensed camera trap at Edgewood County Park adn Natural Preserve by Ken Hickman.
Stick house built on a rock. © KHickman

Where at Edgewood am I likely to see woodrats?
Since woodrats are nocturnal, hikers rarely see the animal. The most obvious signs of woodrats are their stick houses, easily visible from trails through scrub or woodlands. In 2014, one Friends of Edgewood docent counted 345 woodrat houses visible from the the Exercise Loop (Sylvan Trail, Franciscan Trail, Baywood Glen Trail)! Houses are especially easy to see in oak woodlands in late fall and winter, after poison oak and other deciduous shrubs have lost their leaves.

What other signs should I look for?
Watch for fresh twigs on the ground, nipped off with a pruning shears-like cut. Woodrats snip and store seasonally, heaviest in fall before winter, and often climb trees and bushes and snip a bunch to then collect off the ground over multiple nights.

Learn More…
Series on Woodrats by Ken Hickman, found at Nature of a Man

Marianchild, K. 2013. Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals among California’s Oaks. Heyday Press.

References

    Linsdale, J.M. and Tevis, L.P. 1951. The Duskcy-footed Wood Rat: a record of observations made on the Hastings Natural History Reservation. UC Press.

      Atsatt, S.R. and Ingram, T. 1983. Adaptation to oak and other fibrous, phenolic-rich foliage by a small mammal, Neotoma fuscipes. Oecologia 60: 135–142.

        Jameson Jr., E.W. and Peeters, H.J. 2004. Mammals of California. UC Press.

          Laudenslayer Jr., W.F. and Fargo, R.J. 2002. Small Mammal Populations and Ecology in the Kings River Sustainable Forest Ecosystems Project Area. (This has many excellent citations in the References section.)

          Information from wildlife researcher and Friend of Edgewood, Ken Hickman, 2014. Appended by Friends of Edgewood docents.

          All images on this page were taken via licensed camera trap at Edgewood County Park and Natural Preserve by Ken Hickman.