Pack rats, aka woodrats, build their nests, called middens, from plant debris, rocks, animal parts, paper, and almost any other bits of detritus nearby. Frequently, they urinate on their middens. The urine crystalizes and encases the nest material, preserving it for as long as 50,000 years by some estimates. For paleobotanists, middens are a great source of information about how flora has changed over time. Zoologists study the animal remains and poop. And climatologists analyze the material for insight into past climates, even the most recent ice age that ended more than 11,000 years ago. In Smithsonian
, Sadie Witkowski digs into the topic, including a story about what historians learned excavating rats' nests in the walls of the 1808 Charleston, South Carolina home
of slave trader Nathaniel Russel:
Among the mass of organic matter, they found sewing pins, buttons, marbles, part of a uniform waistcoat, and even fragments of printed paper that could be dated to November 1833. The paper was darkened and curled but still legible once it was gently opened.
“It was protected from rain and moisture, and even though it’s sooty, it didn’t burn,” (University of Delaware art conservator Susan) Buck says. “So we just have all these fragile materials that normally wouldn’t survive.” Among the material, the team recovered scraps of an early writing primer, suggesting some of the enslaved workers living in the kitchen house has been learning to read and write.
To move beyond the written record, historians and conservators have looked for new clues in unlikely places. Common rats that surely plagued the occupants of the kitchen house on Nathaniel Russell’s estate have left behind an invaluable cache of items that reveal new details about the lives of people who are too frequently absent in the historical record.
“When you open up a rat’s nest, it’s completely unexpected. You just can’t be prepared for it,” (architectural preservation researcher Rucha) Kamath says. “Sometimes you come across nothing; sometimes you come across a whole treasure chest.”
"From Ancient Seeds to Scraps of Clothing, Rats’ Nests Are Full of Treasures" (Smithsonian)
More: How Can Little Critters Teach Us About Climate? (NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Information)
The deadly 2013 El Reno tornado was 2.5 miles (4 km) wide and killed a team of tornado experts. But as Anton Seimon explains, his colleagues turned that tragedy into an opportunity to confirm a key element of tornado formation.
Some snakes have evolved the ability to glide through the air. For example, paradise tree snakes in southeastern Asia can launch off from a branch and fly as far as 10 meters. Scientists have known that the snakes flatten their bodies to gain lift but new research reveals that they also undulate their bodies as […]
We humans are castaways on an ocean of uncertainty. Since the beginnings of history, our ancestors sought knowledge and understanding about their lives, their relationship with the cosmos, and perhaps take a peek into their future. In such effort—long before the answers of science—earthlings developed a rich variety of divination practices and systems. Many forms […]
A guy on the Apple discussion forum started a thread titled, “Why do your Charger Cables have the lifespan of a housefly?” That question is probably enough to elicit a whole bunch of head nods from virtually everyone reading this, whether you’re an iPhone user, an Android owner or have virtually any device that needs […]
For all their power and capabilities, image editing software isn’t like sitting down to play a video game. You aren’t there to have fun. You’re likely looking to make a few minor tweaks to an image to make it ready to be shared, then you move on with satisfaction in a job well done. If […]
This is truly a golden age for fans of a big ginormous TV screen. Not too long ago, to buy a television over 40 inches usually meant wheeling one of those massive Mitsubishi or Toshiba projection monoliths into your home, consuming a vast portion of any room at a cost of potentially $7,000 to $8,000. […]