|Habitat and Ecology:||Eastern woodrats occur in wooded areas, ravines, floodplain forest; swamps and osage orange and other hedges in some areas in southern United States. The coastal subspecies has been found in a wide variety of habitats, including lowland deciduous forests from Florida northward to southeastern North Carolina, generally inside or near edges of forests, primarily deciduous forest. Other habitats include low, wet areas, ranging from marshes to swamps and swamp hammocks. In Georgia and Florida, habitat is wet areas in hammocks and densely vegetated swamps, where nests are built in hollow trees or along stream banks in dense tangles of cabbage palmetto (Hamilton and Whittaker 1979). |
David Webster (UNC-Wilmington) suggested that the species is habitat-specific and confined to particular soil types. Preferred habitat in North Carolina consists of low-lying deciduous forests with a dense cover of palmetto (Sabal minor). The Rocky Point, Pender County, population is restricted to an unusual woodland dominated by dense shrub layer of Sabal major established on a unique soil (Pender Series) with a very shallow, acidic A-horizon and a slightly alkaline B-horizon (Webster et al. 1985). The habitat there appears to be similar to the palmetto forests of Florida where woodrats are relatively abundant.
Young are born in a nest in a rocky crevice, in or under a tree, in a brush pile, in an abandoned building (Schwartz and Odum 1957), or in a similar site; rarely in the lower branches of a tree. In the Midwest nests generally are sheltered by a stick house (Hayes and Harrison 1992). Nest commonly is used in successive years, may become quite large. Harper (1927) described a nest of sticks and other debris that filled a hollow cypress stump and rose to a height of three feet. Working in Gulf Coast Florida, Pearson (1952) described nests in barns, hollow logs, and subterranean chambers under stumps, tree bases, and root masses. Nest sites were not excavated to any extent by the rats themselves. The majority of nests described by Pearson were found in dense tangles of low shrubs with only small midden heaps scattered around them. Schwartz and Schwartz (1981) described typical woodrat nests as being large, 1.5 to 4 ft in diameter and >3 ft in height. The internal nest cavity was typically 5-8 inches in diameter and carefully lined with finely shredded bark, leaves or grass. The exterior was a jumbled mass of sticks, dried grass, leaves, and assorted rubbish (old bones, pieces of metal, small rocks, etc.) collected by the rat. Nests were left open at the top in sheltered areas, but were roofed over in exposed situations such as in low trees and shrubs. Nests were used all year and, in some cases, for an entire lifetime. Woodrats continually added to their nests and established nests might have several levels and nest cavities.
It breeds from March to October in Oklahoma, mainly February to October in Kansas, apparently all year in Florida and coastal Georgia, all year except reduced in winter in Oklahoma. Females are polyestrous with a cycle of 4-6 days. Gestation probably lasts about 33-39 days (Hamilton 1953). Litter size is usually 2-4 (average three) (Hamilton and Whitaker 1979), with up to 2-3 litters per year. The young are altricial with eyes opening in 15-21 days (Schwartz and Schwartz 1981). Sexual maturity is reached in less than one year and some females, though not males, may breed in their first season (Wiley 1980). Adults appear to live at least three years in the wild (Merritt 1987). Neotoma may have a reproductive potential that is "considerably lower" than other cricetid rodents, based on life span (Schwartz and Schwartz 1981).
The nests of N. magister and presumably N. floridana provide shelter for a large array of other animals, including rabbits, white-footed mouse, snakes, toads, salamanders, as well as spiders and many other invertebrates (Merritt 1987). Woodrats use communal latrine sites and urination sites (Schwartz and Schwartz 1981, Merritt 1987). Latrine areas appear to be used over extended periods of time and by more than one individual.
Pearson (1952) inferred from the distribution of nest sites that woodrats may be at least partly colonial. Other authors have described the woodrat as largely solitary and aggressive, sharing their houses only during the breeding season and when rearing young, and with most captured animals carrying scars apparently from fighting with conspecifics (Nowak and Paradiso 1983). Merritt (1987) described the closely related N. magister as territorial, engaging in aggressive displays of foot thumping and teeth chattering to challenge conspecifics at nest sites.
Schwartz and Schwartz (1981) described home ranges in Missouri as 0.3 ha for males and 0.2 ha for females. Goertz (1970) calculated home ranges of 0.26 ha for males and 0.17 ha for females in Oklahoma.
Wiley (1980) suggested that the black rat snake and the long-tailed weasel are potential predators because their size allows them to enter woodrat houses. Eastern woodrats feed opportunistically on seeds, nuts, fruits, fungi, buds, stems, roots, and foliage. Fall and winter diet may be dominated by stored nuts and seeds (Schwartz and Schwartz 1981). Woodrats are active all year and do not hibernate, but may remain in their nests for extended periods during inclement weather (Schwartz and Schwartz 1981). They are largely nocturnal (Wiley 1980); most active during first few hours of darkness.