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Virginian woodrats help save their species in other states

Nine Allegheny woodrats from Virginia went to breeding programs at the Toledo Zoo, Maryland Zoo, and ZooAmerica in Pennsylvania.
PGC Photo / Tracy A. Graziano
Nine Allegheny woodrats from Virginia went to breeding programs at the Toledo Zoo, Maryland Zoo, and ZooAmerica in Pennsylvania.

Rodents captured in Virginia this summer are headed to breeding programs in other states to help bolster the populations there. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Connor Gillespie is the outreach supervisor at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
Wildlife Center of Virginia
Connor Gillespie is the outreach supervisor at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Allegheny woodrats are a type of packrat native to the Appalachian mountains. Their numbers are more stable in Virginia than elsewhere, so zoos in Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania have established breeding programs to help bring woodrats back in those states. In June, researchers from Radford University caught nine of the rodents and took them to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.

CONNOR GILLESPIE: They got a quick health checkup. All of them were healthy … and then they were picked up by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to be taken to breeding programs, which is a really exciting prospect, that they're going to help their species in the wild.

Connor Gillespie is the center's outreach supervisor. This is the third year in a row the organization has participated in the woodrat program.

GILLESPIE: It's not just the woodrats that we're helping, but it's the ecosystems that they come from. They're important parts of their environment. They play the role of dispersing seeds, increasing soil fertility, even providing habitats for other animals, maybe other rodents, maybe other reptiles.

The species is threatened by a number of factors – including habitat loss due to development. That brings in higher numbers of raccoons looking to scavenge off of humans. But raccoons carry a type of roundworm that is deadly to the woodrats, killing individuals and reducing genetic diversity. Biologist Karen Powers, whose Radford students helped catch this cohort of woodrats, explained that Virginia's remaining contiguous forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains and westward have helped protect their populations here.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.