When we think of rodents, we often think of rats that dart between garbage bins, or look for scraps in the dirtiest nooks and crannies of our city streets. There’s a tendency to think of all rats as feral species due to the ubiquitous introduced Black Rats (Rattus rattus) that find their way into our houses in search of food, but the truth is that there are many more species of native rodents that we often forget about. Our keeper Wendy has been looking after a very exquisite rat named Pandy, who is a native Australian Black-footed Tree-rat. Pandy is just one of over 60 native rodent species in Australia, so Taronga is very privileged to have Black-footed Tree-rats calling our Mosman Zoo home.
Pandy is around five weeks old, but is growing very quickly. Wendy is thrilled to have him represent Australia’s native rodents as Taronga’s Rodent Ambassador, and she is eager to show Pandy to the public when he is old enough to stay in the exhibit permanently. He is spending a considerable amount of time with Wendy so that he is comfortable around humans, and can eventually help educate visitors about his species. Unlike most tree rats, he’s proving to be quite outgoing and gregarious!
Because Black-footed Tree-rats are known to grow quite quickly, Wendy says that it will only be a matter of weeks before Pandy has reached full size. It’s no surprise that he’s growing up quickly – Pandy is already eating fruits, nuts, and even a serving of milk that is specially formulated for rodent pups, once a day!
Despite being a ‘rat’, Wendy explains that Pandy is more like a squirrel, because he is a large, arboreal (tree-dwelling) animal, with a rather long tail that finishes with a beautiful white tip. The rat's extremely long whiskers however, are perhaps his most interesting feature: they are almost 1/3 of the length of his body, and allow him to sense what is around him. These whiskers are extremely tactile, so Tree-rats use these whiskers are we use our hands in our dark environment, to sense and feel what is around us. Wendy explains that when she looks really, really closely, she can see him move these whiskers individually, or a few at a time.
Very little is known about these nocturnal animals, but Taronga’s keepers are looking forward to learning more. Black-footed Tree-rats appear to be solitary creatures, and are known to be shy animals, so it is quite rare to see one in the wild. They usually inhabit the Northern areas of Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland, where their population is beginning to dwindle.
Wendy explains that Black-footed Tree-rats are slow reproducers, and only have 1-3 pups per litter, so it is not all that easy for them to maintain their populations when they are faced with threats such as habitat loss. She encourages Australians to remember that native rodents play an extremely important part in every ecosystem, and that we can help protect them by planting locally native species of plants in our own garden, or through bush regeneration projects. This not only helps to maintain biodiversity, but maintains native insect populations that feed our rodent species.