Bringing Back the Woodrat


The Key Largo Woodrat is almost extinct. SCA member Chris Burgess is trying to change that.

Humans have been blamed for the demise of myriad creatures…so imagine helping to pull one back from the brink of extinction.

The Key Largo woodrat has a gray-brown back, a white belly, and measures 14 inches from nose to tail. “They’re kind of cute,” states SCA intern and AmeriCorps member Chris Burgess. “They have big Mickey Mouse ears.”

Appearances aside, this rodent is considered a keystone species on the north end of this popular Florida island. “They eat only nuts and fruits,” Chris notes, “so they spread seeds that contribute to a healthy hardwood hammock.” Key Largo woodrats also have their own place in the food chain and the nests they create provide shelter for a range of other animals.

However, none of that helped the woodrat avoid Endangered status. Farming and development wiped out much of its home turf, and invasive Burmese pythons and feral cats made matters worse. Chris says current population estimates run as low as 200. The critter’s prospects appeared grim. Until recently.

Chris has been at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Key Largo since 2013. He and Manager Jeremy Dixon are the refuge’s only full-time employees. With occasional help from volunteers, they’ve installed hundreds of artificial nests made of black culvert pipe, cut lengthwise to form a semi-cylindrical dome over which the woodrats pile often towering mounds of sticks.

“The Key Largo woodrat was one of the world’s first composters,” says Dixon, “and this refuge needs all the soil it can get, given its agricultural past.”

Lately, in a pilot program, Chris has been using a power-hose to clear space under trees and boulders to create more natural homesteads. “It’s like comparing a condo to a mansion,” he says of the difference between the pipe and cavity dwellings.

Chris Burgess uses a power hose to create space for endangered Key Largo Woodrats to nest. Credit: Florida Keynoter

According to an agency report, “evidence clearly suggests that [manmade nests] have significantly bolstered the Key Largo woodrat population” and Dixon notes “Chris has been great. A remote camera placed at one of the new [cavity] nests has already photographed a Key Largo woodrat and a Key Largo cotton mouse.” The latter species is also Endangered.

“It’s really been rewarding,” Chris says. “You can see the impact you’re having. Maintaining biodiversity is so important, and things have begun to stabilize.

“I want a career in the conservation field. This experience has really helped me.” And the Key Largo woodrat, as well.

Top photos: Left, SCA member Chris Burgess, credit Florida Keynoter, Right, Key Largo Woodrat, credit USFWS/Gary DeGayner

Below: When he’s not carving out habitats for endangered woodrats, Chris likes to help combat invasive Burmese pythons. This 10 foot snake took an hour to wrestle from its den.