Our Wild Neighbors

Muskrat

Ondatra zibethicus

Marsh dwellers

Image of a Muskrat, mounted upright on its hind feet, seen from an angle with its head turned to the right.

Description of the animal

  • Rodent; member of the rat and mouse family.
  • Muskrats measure about 50 centimetres in length and weigh approximately 1 kilogram.
  • Bevelled incisors grow continuously, similar to those of a beaver. They must be worn down with continuous chewing.
  • A thick layer of waterproof fur covers the body. Muskrats are well adapted to a semi-aquatic life.
  • Each back toe has a fringe of specialized hairs, which helps propel the muskrat through the water.
  • Dark brown fur on the head and back, light greyish-brown on the belly.
  • Short ears.
  • Long, slender, flattened tail covered with scaly skin.

Habitat and needs

  • Marks its territory and communicates with other muskrats by excreting a yellowish substance from two special musk glands located in the anal region. The muskrat's name is derived from this musky-smelling substance.
  • Able to chew on roots while submerged without swallowing water by keeping its lips closed behind the incisors.
  • Prefers swimming, but leaves the water to rest, wash, and eat.
  • While submerged, reduces heart rate and relaxes muscles; this reduces the rate at which oxygen is consumed. Muskrats can remain underwater up to 15 minutes.
  • Lives in marshy areas but can also settle in a wide variety of wetlands and waterways including roadside ditches.
  • Builds huts or digs burrows, depending on the surroundings. Muskrats sometimes coexist with beavers, using their huts and food reserves.
  • These vegetarians feed primarily on aquatic vegetation; favourite food item is cattails.

Relationship

  • In Canada, trapping muskrats is common. The high-quality fur is used to make gloves, hats, and coats.
  • Some farmers and urban planners detest muskrats, because the networks of tunnels they dig in banks damage shorelines. Dens dug too close to farmland can cause agricultural structures to collapse. They also eat wheat, soy and corn crops.
  • Like the beaver, the muskrat is part of the traditional diet of the aboriginal peoples in the Northwest Territories. Muskrat meat is sold commercially in most of North America, sometimes under the name “marsh rabbit.”
  • In earlier times, a small amount of its musk was added to perfume for a longer-lasting effect. Today, some trappers coat traps with musk to give them a natural scent and attract other muskrats.

Living with them

  • Trapping muskrats continues to be permitted; they are not an endangered species.
  • To protect crops located close to aquatic areas, install wire mesh fencing that extends below ground.
  • Since muskrats prefer herbaceous shores to wooded ones, let a buffer strip of trees grow to discourage them. This not only helps to limit muskrat populations, it also stabilizes the banks and improves water quality.

Participating cities where this animal has been seen