“From Ancient Seeds to Scraps of Clothing, Rats’ Nests Are Full of Treasures”

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The Story

“From Ancient Seeds to Scraps of Clothing, Rats’ Nests Are Full of Treasures”
by Sadie Witkowski
Smithsonian, November 15, 2019

The Pitch

Hi Jay,

I hope you’ve been well. I think I have a new pitch that you might be interested in.

What tool do climatologists, botanists, and historical preservationists all have in common?

My guess is that your answer wasn’t rat nests. It turns out all three of these groups rely on rat nests to tell us about the past. Because pack rats are notorious for gathering all sorts of material from their surroundings, we can learn a lot from them. From understanding the local plant species through the pollen they collect, to uncovering past ecosystems based on animal and plant material they hoard, to even getting a glimpse of life in enslaved America.

What I found particularly interesting in digging into these nests is that rat urine itself acts a preservative by crystallizing and keeping these nests (called middens) intact.

I propose to write a piece on the discovered items at the Nathaniel Russell House as a lens to explain why packrat nests are so important to many different fields. I will also explore how rat urine protects artifacts that can tell us about human history, as well as much broader time scales.

I look forward to your response,
Sadie Witkowski

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