Allegheny Woodrat (Neotoma Magister) Food Habits in the Central Appalachians

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT.-Declining Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister) populations suggest a need for more basic ecological information about the species for proper management. Within the core of the Allegheny woodrat's distribution in the central Appalachians, food habits and food resource availability are poorly understood. We collected fecal material from known Allegheny woodrats between November 1997 and December 1998 and used microhistological techniques to describe seasonal food habits in the oak (Quercus spp.), dominated forests of the Ridge and Valley and the northern hardwood forests of the Allegheny Plateau physiographic provinces. We examined dietary differences among seasons within and between provinces. Green vegetation, hard mast, soft mast and fungi were present in Allegheny woodrat diets in both provinces in all seasons. Presence of fungi and soft mast in the diet was higher and more widespread seasonally in the Allegheny Plateau than the Ridge and Valley due, in part, to the more mesic forest conditions and more extensive early successional forest habitat in the Allegheny Plateau. Presence of hard mast in the diet tracked acorn production and availability in both provinces in 1997 and 1998. Significant acorn use on the Allegheny Plateau, where oak-dominated forest stands are rare, highlights the importance of hard mast to Allegheny woodrats. Based on food habits we describe, managers seeking to enhance Allegheny woodrat habitat need to provide a mix of habitat conditions containing abundant green vegetation and optimize production and availability of hard mast, soft mast and fungi.

INTRODUCTION

The Allegheny woodrat (Neoloma magister) is a rodent closely associated with rock outcrops, cliffs, talus slopes, boulder fields and cave entrances in the central and southern Appalachians and Interior Low Plateaus of eastern North America. The species formerly was distributed from southeastern New York to northern Alabama and west across the midOhio River Valley (Newcombe, 1930; Poole, 1940; Wiley, 1980; Hall, 1985). Allegheny woodrat population declines and regional extirpations have occurred throughout the northern and western parts of its range, particularly in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Indiana (Beans, 1992; Hassinger et al., 1996). Allegheny woodrats are still abundant within the central Appalachians of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, although its demographics are unknown (Mengak, 1996; Stihler and Wallace, 1996; Castleberry, 2000b). Declines have been attributed to severe weather (Nawrot and Klimstra, 1976), increased meso-mammalian and avian predation (Balcom and Yahner, 1996), reduced hard mast production because of the elimination of the American chestnut (Castanets dentata) from chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) and gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) infestations in oak (Quercus spp.) forests (Hall, 1988), vegetation alteration from severe white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) herbivory (Hassinger et al., 1996), raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis) parasitism (Beans, 1992; McGowan and Hicks, 1996) and habitat fragmentation (Balcom and Yahner, 1996).

Allegheny woodrat food habits are known from limited direct foraging observations and from examining midden caches of items assumed to be foods. Other lists of potential food items have been made from observations of captive individuals (Poole, 1936, 1940; Pearson, 1952; Rainey, 1956). To better understand food resource needs for this species, we collected fecal samples monthly from the Ridge and Valley and Allegheny Plateau physiographic provinces in Virginia and West Virginia to describe food habits by use of microhistological techniques. We identified seasonally consumed food items in both provinces and compared food habits in oak dominated Ridge and Valley forests and Allegheny Plateau forests where oak is considerably less abundant.

STUDY AREA AND METHODS

Ridge and Valley study sites were located on the Greenbrier State Forest and surrounding Westvaco Corporation properties in Greenbrier County, West Virginia and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Allegheny, Bath and Giles counties, Virginia. …