September 05, 2013
Collecting is an art. Some of us take pleasure in matching the dish towels to the throw pillows or the tea kettle to the living room rug, while others are transfixed by the newest and most exciting gadget on the market. A glimpse at our homes may provide insight into the fashion, technology, and stories of our time, while a historic home might feature up-and-coming trends from 1864. But, a close look at the home of a packrat can give us a glimpse at life 50,000 years ago! Packrats, also known as woodrats, are professional collectors. They spend their days collecting plant material, rocks, animal dung, and treasures to build their homes, or middens. Add a little packrat urine, a dry climate, and a protected location and twigs and dung become invincible to the relentless forces of time! Unlike us human collectors, packrats frequently urinate on their treasures. As the urine dries, sugars and other substances crystallize to form amberat which (under the right conditions) can cement the midden and form a perfect time capsule. What plants were growing here 50,000 years ago? How has the climate changed? And, where is my spatula? Are all questions that might be answered in a packrat midden.
These are all things I've known about packrats for years. What I didn't know until recently is that they are also VERY cute! A few weeks ago I was enjoying the hard earned view atop a peak in the park when a charismatic rodent captured my attention. As it darted quickly through rocks, disappearing in front of me and emerging behind me, I ran through the list of animals I knew. It wasn't a pika, or a squirrel, or a mouse . . . it had big eyes, round ears, a long tail, and enormous whiskers. Unable to come to a conclusion I settled on "Whiskers." After returning to Yosemite valley, and my field guide, I learned that Whiskers was a collector!
Up until then my sole encounter with a packrat involved a backcountry camping trip and a missing spatula. Among the twigs and rocks and dung, packrats collect treasures. And, they love anything shiny! If a packrat is out collecting and sees an enticing treasure, it will take the item and leave whatever it's carrying. Their fascination with shiny objects has meant that for thousands of years, beyond climate and ecological information, packrats have captured human stories as well. Indian artifacts, jewelry, cutlery, car parts, and keys are just a few things to finds themselves carefully tucked away and encased in amberat. Imagine the stories a packrat could tell. What would you like to know?
But remember, if you find yourself wondering, "Where's the __________ [something shiny]?" on a camping trip, look to see if Whiskers made a trade before accusing your friends of mismanaging gear!