Monday, January 14, 2013

Native Species Profile - Muskrat

Lodges at Forest Hill Nature Area

Did you ever see something out in a pond that looks like a tiny beaver lodge and wonder "What animal made that?"

A lodge up close

Beaver lodges are larger and made of branches.  This lodge is small (less than 3 foot tall) and made of cattails and other soft plants.  So if a beaver didn't make this, what did?

Hello my name is Ondatra zibethicus, but you can call me Muskrat.

The answer is a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus).  This small mammal is semi-aquatic rodent and is closely related to the beaver.  While a beaver can grow up to 3 foot long (plus a 1 foot long tail) and commonly weigh up to 50-60 pounds, the muskrat only measures up 1 foot long (plus a tail up to 1 foot long) and weighs less than 5 pounds.  Unlike a beavers wide flat tail, a muskrat's tail is long and skinny and flattened from top to bottom.

The muskrat is an engineer much like the beaver.  It builds lodges and food caches, and digs channels for swimming and extensive burrows along shorelines.  Its lodges are made of mud and plants (mainly cattails) piled atop a platform of mud in shallow water.  When the pile of vegetation is high enough, the muskrat digs a tunnel with its entrance under water up into the center of the pile.  There it chews out a small room inside the center of the pile to use as its home. According to folklore, the size of muskrat lodges can be used to predict how cold and long winter will be.

The engineering skills of the muskrat are celebrated by many Native American cultures.. In the Ojibwe creation story, Muskrat dove to the bottom of the Great Sea after all other animals had failed and returned with a handful of mud to be placed on the back of Turtle - creating Turtle Island as a place for all the land dwelling animals to live.

This picture shows the muskrat's size - the lily pad is about 7 inches across.

Like other rodents, the muskrat has long incisors that continue to grow throughout its life and wear down with use.  It has flat molars with ridges adapted for grinding up vegetation.  Despite teeth that show the muskrat is an herbivore, like many other rodents, the muskrat is an omnivore.  Most of its diet is aquatic plants such as cattails, water lilies, rushes, and arrowhead.  It also grazes on grasses and strips trees of bark. It also eats fish, crayfish, clams, snails, and young birds.  I have seen one attempting to catch ducks. 

Carrying a water lily bud

The muskrat is preyed on by a large number of animals including birds and mammals.  Young muskrat are even eaten by snapping turtles and large fish.

Harvesting tree branches

Basic Information

Ondatra zibethicus

Habitat:  wetlands, rivers, ditches, ponds, lakes

Size:  8-12 inches long with a 7-12 inch tail; weighs between 1 and 4.5 pounds

Diet:  aquatic plants, roots, cattails, bulrush, grasses, tree bark, leaves, buds, fish, crayfish, clams, snails,           baby birds

Predators: hawks, owls, herons, eagles, ravens, snapping turtles, large fish, fox, mink, otter, bobcat, coyote,            wolves, domestic dogs

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