There are three species of mammals that are native to Indiana that I’m sure most Hoosiers have never observed. They are the swamp rabbit, Franklin’s ground squirrel and the Allegheny woodrat. I have seen the swamp rabbit and the woodrat, but have never had the opportunity to view the ground squirrel.
All three are rare in our state and while efforts are underway to save the three mammals in Hoosierland, it may be hard for them to remain a part of our future.
The swamp rabbit is the largest of the 14 cottontail species, with a large old rabbit reaching a weight of up to six pounds. The average weight of an eastern cottontail is a little over three pounds. To tell the two apart one has to get close enough to see that the swamp rabbit is darker in color, has rather small ears, and has cinnamon rings around his eyes. While they will eat a variety of other plants, a giant wild cane, which is now uncommon in Indiana, is their preferred food.
Swamp rabbits have only been found in the southwestern counties of Knox, Gibson and Perry. There may be other locations where this rabbit is still living, but as you can see it is indeed a very rare Indiana mammal.
Loss of habitat and lack of its preferred food seems to be the main reasons for its decline. Also I’m sure some are shot each year during rabbit season as it is hard to tell it from a cottontail.
The Franklin’s ground squirrels are rather large in size and are only fund in northwestern Indiana. It once could be found in about 15 counties, but today many only exist in six counties. The largest remaining population seems to be in Lake and Benton counties. Again loss of habitat is probably the leading cause of its decline in our state.
The Allegheny woodrat is a most interesting creature. It is a rat that looks like a giant mouse. I have had the opportunity to see this mammal, also known as packrat, on three occasions. All were in caves with a variety of objects it had found of interest.
A woodrat nest may contain some very strange objects, in addition to the food and plant material is usually brings in. It really likes bird feathers of various colors and objects it has stolen or found from humans. I have found shotgun shells, a variety of paper and plastic items, an old shoe, a sock, two ballpoint pens, someone’s hat and a very large nice quartz crystal which I now have in my rock collection. You can see why it has received the name packrat. It is a true collector
The woodrat eats a variety of plants. These include nuts, acorns, fruits, seeds, many kinds of green plants and fungi. It likes to store things up for later usage and to help it during the winter when food may be hard to find.
Rather recent fossil remains of woodrats have been found in caves in Lawrence, Monroe, Orange, Owen, Harrison and Jennings counties, but today it apparently is only found in a few locations. The main Indiana population seems to be in the high limestone cliffs along the Ohio River in a 40 mile section from Alton in Crawford County to Rosewood in Harrison County.
Caves and rock shelters in Harrison-Crawford State Forest also have a population of woodrats and it was here and in one other location that I had contact with this unique animal.
While rare, these three mammals are still a very interesting segment of our Hoosier natural heritage.