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Because Rats Need Love Too: Building Homes For Endangered Rodent In Keys

Nancy Klingener
Refuge manager Jeremy Dixon, left, tags a tree where he and a crew of volunteers have just built a nest for endangered Key Largo wood rats.

There are a lot of endangered species in South Florida — and especially in the Florida Keys. Dozens of volunteers recently gathered recently to help build new homes for one of those species.

It's a rodent, an animal that most people think more about getting rid of than protecting. But this is a very special rodent.

"It's the Key Largo wood rat," said Jeremy Dixon. "It's something that's our own."

Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Key Largo wood rat is more closely related to a mouse than to the rats that you try to keep out of your house.

Dixon is the manager of the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on North Key Largo. So it's his job to care about the Key Largo wood rat, an endangered species.

Besides, he said, it's not really a rat. It's more closely related to a mouse. The wood rats are about the size of a small squirrel. And they're cute.

He really admires these creatures.

"Once you see one of those stick nests in the wild, you really start to appreciate how they're not so different than us," Dixon said. "They're industrious, you know? They care about raising their families. They're making these impenetrable structures that should keep away native predators. Unfortunately, they don't keep away the non-native ones."

Feral cats have taken a huge toll on the wood rat population. And more recently, there's the alarming prospect of pythons making their way from the Everglades over to North Key Largo. In August, python hatchlings were found on the island. That means the snakes could be breeding there.

The idea behind the recent project is to give the rats a hand by providing homes — or at least starter homes. It's a pretty simple construction project, starting with a half-tube of plastic pipe, the kind used to lay culverts under roads.

"Once you see one of those stick nests in the wild, you really start to appreciate how they're not so different than us" - Jeremy Dixon

Dixon and his volunteer crew put the pipe next to a tree, then cover it with coral rocks and sticks. The hope is that the rats will recognize it and add on, and maybe even recover some of their original home range. 

Altogether, people have built almost a thousand rat nests in North Key Largo, though it's taken them awhile to get to the current building plans. Originally, they used old personal watercraft.

"Because the only place where they used to see wood rats were underneath old boats that were thrown out in the hammock here," Dixon said. "So there was something about that size that they thought was needed."

But it's a pain to drag old Jet-Skis into the woods. This method is a lot easier on the volunteers, like Alexandra Cabanelas. She's a junior at Nova Southeastern University and drove down from Fort Lauderdale to help out.

"They [the Key Largo wood rats] are not that big and they carry rocks and sticks for meters" - Alexandra Cabanelas

She's studying marine biology but said the project gave her some appreciation for the little rodents.

"Since I'm a vegetarian, the first thing that I like is that they're herbivores," she said. And, like Dixon, she admires their work ethic. "They're not that big and they carry rocks and sticks for meters," she said.

The nests are in an area where wood rats have disappeared over recent years. In about a year, the refuge staff will check back and see if the rats have returned.

By giving them a place to live, and limiting exotic predators like feral cats and pythons, the hope is to help the Key Largo wood rats survive on the island that shares their name.

"It's our species up here, and through thousands of years of evolution, it's brought it to this place," Dixon said. "And I think we have a duty to take care of it."