Stick-nest rats are masters of construction

By Angela Heathcote March 23, 2018
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Our desert-dwelling rodents are truly remarkable, but the enormous nests of our native stick-nest rats are something else entirely.

PRIOR TO THEIR extinction from the mainland, our native stick-nest rats (Leporillus conditor) decorated the desert plains of outback Australia with giant stick constructions, often larger than a wedge-tailed eagles nest.

Like many Australian rodents, they’ve adapted to Australia’s harsh environment, developing spectacular skills to stay cool, avoid the sun and conserve water.

Much larger than your average rodent, stick-nest rats are the perfect meal for feral cats and foxes, whose insatiable appetites have resulted in the rats mainland extinction.

Now, the stick-nest rat only survives on the North and South Franklin Islands, just off the coast of South Australia, where it’s safe from predation.

Since it’s extinction from the mainland, however, there have been several attempts to reintroduce the stick-nest rat into fenced off reserves, which has had some success.

Nathan Beerkens, who’s been monitoring the rat at Arid Recovery, a 123 km fenced reserve in SA, for over a year, tells Australian Geographic that their populations have improved, but they’re still conservation dependant.

The construction of the nest

According to Nathan, the nests of these incredible rats are almost impenetrable.

“They find themselves a base structure to build off, whether that is a trunk, a shrub from a tree, a pile of dead branches or a pile of rocks.  We have some on our reserve that have even used a pile of star pickets.

“Once they have that base they collect their sticks, pin them against the base and fill in all the gaps until you’re left with this really strong structure, way stronger than one of those three little pig’s houses.”

The much larger nests are a sign that the structure has been there for a while, as stick-nest rats are known to pass on their homes to the next generation, who then add their own new sticks.

Built to last

Much like the spinifex hopping mouse that produces solid crystals of urine, the stick-nest rat produces sticky urine, which they then use to glue sticks together.

“That’s another adaptation to being an arid zone animal. They want to conserve as much water as they can. They don’t waste water. And no, it doesn’t smell,” Nathan says.

This cement-like urine is so effective that in 1999, a team of researchers discovered nests that were over 10, 000 years-old.

“A lot of their nests have survived, especially under rocky over hangs and caves where they’re protected from the elements.The rats build these structures and they build them to last. Their pee is very strong.”