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June 1, 2014

Giant rats reappear in the Keys

Despite what many believed, Gambian giant pouch rats have continued taking a liking to their nonnative home on Grassy Key.

Despite what many believed, Gambian giant pouch rats have continued taking a liking to their nonnative home on Grassy Key.

Despite extensive efforts beginning in 2007 to eradicate the invasive exotic species, state and federal officials are still attempting to kill off the last of the rats.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last week dropped off fliers at Grassy Key homes asking residents to be on the lookout for the pests and describing what they look like compared to other common species like opossum and raccoons.

The African rat species can grow up to nine pounds and reportedly appeared on Grassy Key sometime between 1999 and 2001, when they were released by a resident who had been breeding them.

"We know that there are still some out there and we've been doing some limited trapping and monitoring,” FWC nonnative-wildlife biologist Jenny Eckles said.

"We're also hiring [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] to come back down and do 10-day trappings. They'll trap four times over the next year for 10 days each," she said.

The federal agency has been involved with the FWC's eradication efforts over the years.

According to the FWC, the rats average three pounds and are usually 20 to 35 inches long. They are gray to brown in color with a pale belly and feet that are off-white. They have a mostly dark gray tail with an off-white tip.

Eckles said the FWC hopes to complete its contract with the U.S.D.A. "by late summer or early fall."

Then "they put out a bunch of live traps, 150 to 200, bait it with cantaloupe or peanut butter and check them every day," she said.

In addition, Eckles said the FWC plans to "do more smaller-scale trapping events in between the large-scale [U.S.D.A.] events." That includes cameras to monitor the island.

"We'll focus on the core areas where we've had the most captures," Eckles said, referring to the area around Tropical and Peachtree avenues near the center of the island.

Eckles said the last confirmed Gambian rat sighting came in December and noted that "it is really hard" to eliminate every rat from the island.

"We're hoping we get help from a lot of different landowners so we can find out where they might be holed up and get permission to trap on their property," she said.

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