The muskrat is a semi-aquatic rodent native to the wetlands of North America. This medium-sized rodent has superb adaptation skills which have played a crucial role in its successful introduction in several parts of South America, Europe, and Asia. In spite of a geographical range spanning four continents, several interesting facts about the species, including why it is referred to as muskrat, its adaptations, or its semi-aquatic behavior, continue to elude most people in the world.
Facts about Muskrats
The muskrat derives its name from the fact that it has two scent glands, which give off a musky odor, located near its tail. This musky odor is used by the species to mark their territory. Even though it is referred to as a 'rat', it doesn't belong to the true rat family, i.e., the genus Rattus. Its scientific name is Ondatra zibethicus. It is the lone species belonging to genus Ondatra in the Arvicolinae sub-family.
Habitat: If muskrats are found in various parts of the world today, it is largely because of their exceptional adaptation skills. Though their native habitat, the wetlands are fast disappearing owing to human encroachment, these rodents have successfully adapted themselves to newer habitats, like man-made canals and smaller irrigation channels. In North America, muskrats are found all over Canada and the United States, as well as parts of Mexico.
Appearance: An adult muskrat can measure anywhere between 16 to 24 inches in length and weigh between 1.5 to 4 lb, which is a lot for a rodent. It is the largest rodent in its subfamily, which contributes to its popularity. It sports short, thick, fur coat, which is usually dark brown in color. The color of the fur near its belly is slightly lighter compared to the entire body.
Adaptations: The exceptionally long tail of this animal has vertical scales all over it. This unusual adaptation helps the muskrat swim, making it one of the few semi-aquatic rodents in the world. When muskrats walk on the land, their tails rub on the ground and leave a trail, thus making it easier for wildlife enthusiasts and hunters to track them. Even their fur has two layers which helps them to adapt to the cold water in which they swim.
Diet: These omnivorous rodents are most often active at night or at dawn and dusk. They feed on a range of aquatic vegetation, such as Typha, as well as some small animals, such as frogs and small turtles. There is no dearth of food for them in the wetlands, which are home to a wide range of fish and other animals.
Predators: These hunters become the prey when it comes to animals larger in size, such as foxes, wolves, snakes, alligators, hawks, and owls. Being hunters as well as prey makes these rodents an important part of the food chain in this region.
Muskrat meat is considered a delicacy in the regions where the species is found in abundance. Its fur is also used to make fur clothes which have a great demand in the international market. The fact that it is listed as 'Least Concern' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that excessive hunting for food and fur has not yet resulted in any damaging impact on the muskrat population; yet another sign of their grit.