UPDATED: Ohio-bound Allegheny Woodrats at the Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Allegheny Woodrat – a nocturnal, solitary rodent roughly the size of an Eastern Gray Squirrel — can typically be found in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. While their population is considered stable within the Commonwealth, the Allegheny Woodrat is categorized as Endangered in several nearby states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

During the week of September 11, staff at the Center were presented with the unique opportunity to lend a helping hand in restoring the at-risk Allegheny Woodrat population in Ohio by collaborating with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Over the course of five days, a total of nine Allegheny Woodrats were live-trapped by Virginia DWR biologists in Rappahannock County, and were transferred to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for medical evaluation and temporary housing.

Upon admission, each woodrat received a physical exam, anti-parasitic medications, and applicable treatments for any superficial wounds that were revealed during intake. Senior Veterinary Intern Dr. Olivia also collected tissue samples from each individual, which will be tested by researchers later on for genetic analysis.

Once the logistics have been confirmed – ideally within the coming week — these woodrats will be transported to Ohio by plane and released into an area where the regional population is in decline. The hope is that these woodrats will add to the gene pool and boost the population size. Wildlife Center supporters may remember similar collaborations involving  Allegheny Woodrats in the past – as recently as 2019 and 2022.

Stay tuned for future updates, photos, and reports!

September 19 Update: Early yesterday morning, all nine Allegheny Woodrats left the Wildlife Center of Virginia! After being placed in individual travel crates, volunteer transporter Gail Moore drove the woodrats, along with their health certificates, medical records, and legal documentation, to a rendezvous point in West Virginia.

While the original plan was to transport the woodrats by plane, weather conditions were not favorable, and the decision was made to travel by car instead. Biologists from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources received the woodrats, and will likely arrive at their final destination during the late afternoon or early evening. Stay tuned for more updates on their release, research efforts involving these Allegheny Woodrats, and more!

September 22 Update: On September 20, all nine Allegheny Woodrats were successfully released into the wild in Adams County, Ohio! State biologists reported that the woodrats were disseminated throughout four distinct subpopulations – an accomplishment several years in the making. Wildlife biologist Cheryl Mollohan described the woodrats’ relocation as “a potential game changer” for the overall health of the Ohio woodrat population.

Center staff have also heard from Dr. Karen Powers, one of the researchers analyzing the tissue samples collected from these woodrats before their departure, who provided further insight on how ongoing studies may benefit conservation efforts as a whole:

“We are using samples from the Rappahannock County woodrats to contribute to three separate collaborative projects, all of which contribute to conservation efforts for our woodrats."

Project #1: "The bot flies and fleas [removed from each woodrat upon admission to the Center] are being added to an eight-state survey of ectoparasites for Allegheny Woodrats. Never before has such a wide-ranging look at these parasites been attempted. So many states have contributed, and I am grateful for the cooperative nature of our Allegheny Woodrat Working Group. This group was established during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when conferences went online instead of in-person — and we have kept it going for a couple of years now! Of note, the bot flies we have collected from Virginia, to-date, do not match the genetic signatures of any bot fly species known from mammals in the eastern United States. So, this may be a new, undescribed species. I can’t wait to see what we find out when we analyze the bot flies we received from the Wildlife Center. Contributing groups include Radford University (myself and geneticist Dr. Bob Sheehy), Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (Rick Reynolds), and Northern VA Community College (flea expert Dr. Ralph Eckerlin)."

Project #2: "The ear tissue is contributing to two separate projects — one in-state and one range-wide. The in-state work is a collaboration between Radford University (myself), Virginia Tech (postdoctoral researchers from Mark Ford’s laboratory), and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to build upon an [approximately] 10-year-old publication that examined the DNA of woodrats all over Virginia — both from live-trapping and from extracting DNA from museum specimens. The DNA analyses were able to show that there were clear geographic barriers that were preventing woodrats from interacting and mating with different populations. This helps conservation efforts in determining if populations are too isolated, or, if we do move woodrats in-state, where they can best be released to improve genetic diversity (and thus, the health of their populations). This work looks at genetic patterns throughout in-state populations, and we have more than 50 samples now from woodrats all over their range in Virginia. Before this collaboration, we did not have any samples from Rappahannock County, so this is a big deal!"

Project #3: "The extracted DNA from the ear tissue is also being shipped up to Towson University in NJ, where geneticist Dr. Jackie Doyle is doing a very high-tech method of DNA analyses that can better look at genetic differences across the entire range of woodrats. This is contributing to planned efforts at captive breeding colonies at two zoos up north. Using the results from Dr. Doyle’s analyses, we can actually pick out specific woodrats for the captive colony who may offer the best chance of maintaining or increasing genetic diversity in areas of release. So, this work looks at genetic patterns down to the individual level across all populations, and across all participating states.”

Conserving wildlife and the environment is a multi-faceted effort that requires collaboration between government agencies, researchers and wildlife professionals, and the public – staff at the Wildlife Center of Virginia are extremely proud to have contributed to this project, which was possible in part thanks to the generosity of our supporters. Thank you!