Hey, what’s that little, brown, furry critter swimming around ponds and lakes? A muskrat!
Adults can only weigh up to 1.5 kilograms, so these little pond-dwellers can be hard to spot. However; muskrats are still the largest members of the rat and mouse family in North America!
Muskrats look a little bit like beavers, don’t they? With their scruffy brown furry bodies and aquatic lifestyles, it could be easy to mix them up!
Physically though, muskrats are quite different. First of all, they’re much smaller, and secondly their tails are narrow and flat. In fact they almost look like rat tails.
Muskrats have partially webbed hind feet that they use to help them swim, and they use their front feet like little hands to grab objects.
Just like beavers, muskrats love water! They tend to live in freshwater marshes, ponds, marshy areas of lakes and slow moving streams. But muskrats don’t build dams the same way beavers do.
Using mud, pond weeds, cattail and bulrushes, muskrats build their homes near the water. They tend to live in family groups and can be defensive about their portion of the pond. Each muskrat family’s section has a house, feeding area and canals through cattails and pond vegetation.
With winter on its way, muskrats are busy putting together domes made from frozen vegetation to cover holes in the ice. According to Alberta Environment and Parks’ website, muskrats keep the domes open throughout the winter by continually chewing away the ice and pulling up underwater vegetation to build an insulated dome. These miniature lodges are used as resting places during underwater forays and as feeding stations.
Muskrats like to eat meat and greens. They enjoy pond weeds and vegetation, but also like feasting on mussels, frogs, salamanders and small fish.
Muskrats are feisty little critters! Especially during breeding season when they are often seen fighting within their own families.
Fun Muskrat facts!
- Muskrats are capable of remaining submerged in water for up to 15 minutes in a relaxed state. They reduce their heart rates and relax their muscles, reducing the rate at which oxygen is used.
- Muskrats store a supply of oxygen in their muscles during a dive and are less sensitive to high carbon dioxide levels in the blood than are non-diving mammals.
- Muskrat’s front teeth are modified for underwater chewing. Their large incisors (or cutting teeth) protrude ahead of their cheeks and lips so they can close their mouths behind their teeth! This makes it possible for under water eating without swallowing water.
Young muskrats are now venturing out on their own and could struggle to find homes and territories since they‘re being claimed by older muskrats, and since preparations for winter started last month. It’s possible that you might see some younger muskrats making their way into urban and residential areas looking for winter homes.
If you see a muskrat far from water or venturing into a dangerous place, give AIWC a call
at 403-946-2361. AIWC is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
By Nina Grossman, AIWC Volunteer