As suburbia reaches farther and farther into the landscape, natural environments and habitats are changed, if not destroyed. Add pollution and deforestation, and habitats across Pennsylvania look little like they did generations ago.
Such changes have greatly reduced the habitats available for the Allegheny woodrat, a threatened species the Pennsylvania Game Commission hopes can help restore those lost habitats.
Delaware Valley College received 11 woodrats, donated by Purdue University, about a month ago. Both the college and the Game Commission hope to breed the woodrats and replenish local habitats with the threatened species.
"We have provided a whole variety of problems here that have impacted them," said Reg Hoyt, co-chair of the Animal Biotechnology and Conservation Department at Delaware Valley College. "Where they're not being found is probably an indicator that the habitat isn't in good shape."
Often referred to as "packrats," woodrats usually are found on rocky outcrops near cliffs or in caves. A cousin of the common house rat -- properly known as the Norway rat -- woodrats live on their own, but within distance of other woodrats to mate when the mood strikes. Their natural rocky habitat may not seem the healthiest in the first place; woodrats must live near a thriving forest to find enough food, especially to store plenty of food to survive the winter.
"It is a very specialized habitat in which it will be found," Hoyt said. "But then again, the quality of the forest nearby has to be good enough to maintain that population. It's always been a balancing act."
That population has declined over the last half-century, placing the woodrat on Pennsylvania's threatened species list since 1983. It is also considered a "responsibility species" within the state, as more than 5 percent of the world's woodrat population can be found in Pennsylvania.
"They have a lifespan of about 18 months, so it's pretty much grow, reproduce and go," said Jerry Feaser, Game Commission spokesman. "Given the difficulty of the break-up of habitat, that's made a challenge for them to survive, let alone where they live."
Along with urbanization, the American Chestnut blight of the early 1900s and the ensuing logging of American Chestnuts, devastated the woodrat's natural habitat and eliminated a primary food source.
"The American Chestnut was a more annual and abundant crop that a lot of wildlife, not just woodrats, depended upon," Feaser said. "The loss of that certainly placed a little stress on a variety of species."
These difficulties help explain the woodrat's isolated existence in the wild. With resources scarce, the woodrat opts to look out solely for itself.
"In the wild, there are very limited resources, so when that's the case they will set up territories that they defend so they've got enough food for themselves, and if they're females, enough food for their offspring," Hoyt said. "So they, very definitely, don't want others coming into that territory, unless they have a reason that they want them to come into it."
The reason such a feisty creature would want others around is the same reason Delaware Valley College acquired the seven females and four males: reproduction. Hoyt and his staff hope to breed the woodrats, and with the Game Commission slowly release the offspring into the wild. Over time, they hope the woodrat population in Western Pennsylvania will stabilize, and strengthen the surrounding habitats.
"The Allegheny woodrat is the best indicator of quality habitats that we have," Hoyt said. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the Allegheny woodrat is probably one of the most important species to the cave systems because they bring in food. They deposit their feces. They, in fact, are kind of the connection to the outside world, and may be supporting entire ecosystems within the cave systems."
The reproduction portion of Hoyt's research may prove difficult and time consuming, as the woodrats are very hostile unless in the appropriate mindset. But the goal of aiding the woodrat species will trump any frustrations.
"It is our intent to continue this long into the future," Hoyt said. "We plan on being involved as long as we possibly can."
Douglas Farmer: email@example.com or on Twitter @D_Farmer.