Packrats are adorably adorned with large sympathetic eyes and ears comically larger than their faces. Wiggly whiskers and a soft, furry body complete their look. Why do they look so darn cute? Typically when animals display larger-than-life features we, as humans, find that facial ratio delightful. That’s why we are hard-wired to be enamored with human and animal babies. Who can resist these fuzzy furballs with their enlarged nocturnal adaptations?
They’re WATER WISE
Want to live a more sustainable lifestyle? Just copy packrats and absorb all available water solely from what you ingest! Packrats feed on juicy succulents and are able to avoid cactus spines easily while feasting on prickly pear pads. No need for a constant water supply—these rodents have wise water use down.
They’re ADMIRABLE ARCHITECTS
Packrats build homes of sticks, plants parts and existing cactus patches. They guard it with barriers of cholla joints and dog poop. Sometimes packrats build homes underneath rocky outcroppings that are protected from the elements. Packrat houses are so well constructed that some have been continuously occupied for thousands of years by multiple generations of packrats.
They’re a KEYSTONE SPECIES
Packrats are vital to a healthy desert ecosystem. By collecting plant parts and moving cactus around, they get new plants started by being seed and cactus dispersers. New growth in the desert habitat can be attributed to these industrious animals. They’re houses can also be homes for many other organisms including desert spiny lizards, tortoises, snakes, and a plethora of invertebrates. In fact, where you find packrats, the biodiversity of animals in the region is greater than it would be without them.
Packrats are famous for collecting objects! Wildlife biologists don’t know why they collect, they just do. Shiny objects, small toys, money, and human trash all make their way into packrat houses. They are the original curators of our desert. In fact, due to packrats, researchers have discovered that the climate of the Tucson Basin has changed drastically in just a short time. Did you know saguaros have only been in this area for 8,000 years? Thank a packrat for that fun fact.
Their PEE IS INSANE
Packrats conserve so much water that their urine is think and viscous, like syrup. They use this to pee all over their possessions, which creates a midden (think of insects trapped in amber). By dissecting middens, researchers were able to identify plant, animal parts, and pollen fragments giving us a timeline of Tucson’s ecology over thousands of years.
They help KEEP IT INTERESTING
Humans get to enjoy unique challenges when living near packrats. Our coexistence isn’t always pleasant, but what ingenuity packrats inspire! Isn’t necessity the mother of invention? Without packrats, would we know to light up a truck’s engine at night or how to rodent-proof an AC unit? If you’ve ever enjoyed finding creative solutions, or have become an inventor yourself, thank a packrat.
They’re a VITAL FOOD SOURCE
Have you pointed a camera trap at a water dish and been incredibly delighted record a bobcat mother with kittens? Well, those cute cats have likely been enjoying a squeaky snack that night. Everything in the food web plays an important role, thus, if you appreciate owls, gopher and king snakes, bobcats, or coyotes, remember their food source is important to maintain. The Desert Museum recommends never poisoning rodents, either. A rule of thumb is: Packrat poison doesn’t know which desert creatures are friend or foe. Meaning, a poisoned rodent could get into the belly of a beloved pet, bobcat, owl, or snake and seriously harm them.
Want to play like a packrat? Urine luck! Packrat Playhouse: Hidden in the Midden is a new exhibit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where kids of all ages can climb through prickly pear, slide down cholla, play collecting games and learn about these fascinating animals in an indoor (air-conditioned) space.
Written by: Catherine Bartlett, ASDM Education Specialist