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Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Mammals Around Las Vegas, Wildlife Around Las Vegas
 
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)

Desert Woodrats (Neotoma lepida), also called Packrats and Trade-Rats, are cute little creatures with big ears, big black eyes, buffy-tan fur (adults), and very long whiskers. They are medium-sized rodents with head and body lengths of about 6 inches and a tail of 4-6 inches. Fresh out of the nest, pups are gray.

This species lives at almost all elevations in the deserts and mountains around Las Vegas. They occur from the Lower Sonoran (Creosote-Bursage Flats) Life Zone up to at least 9,000 feet in the Canadian (Pine-Fir Forest) Life Zone. Look for them anywhere -- but don't expect to see one because they are secretive and come out a night. Rarely, one might be seen during daylight, perhaps because a snake or some other predator is investigating their underground nest.

Around Las Vegas area, this is the only species of woodrat.

Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)

Called Woodrats, Packrats, and even "Trade-rats," these creatures are known for picking up shiny objects around camps and rural residences and taking them home to adorn their nest. If a woodrat has a nut or something in its mouth, it may drop that item and pick up the shiny new thing -- hence the name "trade-rat."

Woodrats armor their nest with stones, sticks, and cactus spines. They also bring home leaves, shiny things, bones, and other stuff to adorn their nest. When woodrats nest in caves, the stuff can build up for years and even centuries. Woodrats do have one disgusting habit, they poop and pee on everything, and their urine is very sticky -- almost like latex. The poop, pee, and stuff they bring in can build up and harden into a solid mass called a midden.

Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Juvenile Desert Woodrat

A "midden" or "midden pile" is a fancy name for a trash heap. When ancient people made middens, they left behind things for archaeologists to dig through. From their trash, archaeologists determine how the ancients lived, what they used for tools, and what they ate. When packrats make midden piles, which are mostly solidified urine, feces, and plant material, biologists can dig through the midden to determine the same things. Link to photos of packrat middens.

 

Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Juvenile Desert Woodrat.
Scientists use packrat middens these days to study climate change by excavating the middens and identifying plant fragments in the layers. Different species of plants grow under different climate conditions, so using the plants pieces and carbon-14 dating, scientists can determine when the plants were alive, and thereby date the changes in climate. Using midden piles from the Las Vegas area, biologists have determined that much of our desert was covered with pinyon pines and juniper trees at the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago). So, the next time you see a packrat midden, take a moment and contemplate its age, but leave it alone, and thank the packrats for their contribution to our knowledge of the changing desert ecosystem.
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida) nest

Woodrats prefer to build nests in caves and deep cracks in cliffs where predators can't dig them out, places such as this little cave (photo at left). In addition to the protection afforded by the cliffs, woodrats armor their nest with bits of sticks, leaves, stones, and cactus spines to keep predators out. Although woodrats prefer to build nests in rocks and caves, they are quite resourceful and will use a variety of nesting places if necessary. For more examples of woodrat nests, click here.

Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida) Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida) Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Pale gray-brown back; tail with short hairs throughout. Roadkill.
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Big ears and very long whiskers. Adult male. Roadkill.
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Typical rodent incisors. Adult male. Roadkill.
Desert Woodrat (Neotoma lepida)
Pale white belly. Adult male. Roadkill.

 
Note: All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
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