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Wildlife Wednesdays: Dr. Jane Goodall Visits Endangered Woodrats Born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Key Largo Refuge

Anne Savage, Ph.D.

by , Ph.D., Conservation Director, Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment

Last month, we were very proud to welcome internationally renowned conservationist, Dr. Jane Goodall, to the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida Keys, where endangered Key Largo woodrats born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are being reintroduced to their native habitat. Key Largo woodrats are one of the species featured on Dr. Jane’s Hope for Animals and Their World website, which shares inspirational stories about endangered species protection.

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge Manager Steve Klett and Dr. Jane Goodall

While at the refuge, Dr. Jane met with volunteers Clay and Ralph DeGayner, who are featured on her website, Refuge Manager Steve Klett (in the photo with Dr. Jane), and Christy Alligood, Ph.D., Disney’s Animal Programs research specialist.

Scientists estimate that the Key Largo woodrat population has dwindled to fewer than 500 animals after years of habitat loss, drought and predation by non-native animal species, such as Burmese pythons and feral cats. Although small in size, these little woodrats play a vital role in the circle of life in their forest home. They are an important source of food for other native animals such as owls and hawks, and they build and maintain nests that are often used by other endangered species as well.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom and one of our collaborators, the Lowry Park Zoo, have bred Key Largo woodrats as part of a recovery plan to augment the existing population found only in Key Largo. Breeding this elusive species was a challenge since scientists had very little information about social structure, reproductive biology or ecology. Through diligent research, Disney’s animal experts studied the behavior of this nocturnal animal and found ways to successfully breed 41 adorable pups! Since 2006, 25 litters have been born in Disney’s colony with litter sizes ranging from one to three pups. In 2009, the program received the Bean Award for Significant Achievement in Captive Breeding from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

In the past year, 26 woodrats born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Lowry Park Zoo have been reintroduced to their native habitat in Key Largo, where scientists track their movements using special radio transmitter collars.

Key Largo Woodrat

Before the woodrats are released in the forest, they are exposed to native plants and acclimated to their new homes inside enclosed nest structures. We’ve been happy to see that the released woodrats have the same survival skills as wild woodrats – storing food, moving between multiple nests and adding sticks to their homes. Two of the females have even conceived and given birth in the wild! Unfortunately, the released woodrats also experience the same challenges as wild woodrats, including predation. We join with other conservation organizations in supporting plans for humane removal of non-native species from endangered species habitat.

The Disney’s Animal Programs team is collaborating on the Key Largo woodrat conservation program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Dagny Johnson State Park, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of St. Andrews, Lowry Park Zoo and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Guests can learn more about Disney conservation efforts when they visit Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and by visiting www.disney.com/conservation.

Key Largo Woodrats Fun Facts:

  • Key Largo woodrats share little in common with the average city rat.
  • The rodents make their homes in forested areas, eating leaves and fruit.
  • Average gestation period is 38 days.
  • In the wild, males and females live separately and only come together for breeding.

Take a look at more of our conservation efforts at Disney Parks: