A glimpse into the muskrat way of life

The Labradorian - - Editorial - Gary Shaw

The muskrat is a less than glam­orous an­i­mal that lives in many of the wa­ter­ways of Labrador.

The first thing about the muskrat is some­thing that many of us may not be aware of. The muskrat is not a rat at all. They are a mem­ber of the mouse fam­ily, a big ver­sion of the field mouse fam­ily that has over time, adapted to life in and around wa­ter.

Their name comes from the fact that the an­i­mal has two spe­cial musk glands lo­cated be­neath the skin in close prox­im­ity to its anus. These glands will typ­i­cally en­large dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son and pro­duces a yel­low­ish, musky smelling sub­stance that is de­posited at sta­tions along it’s travel routes, in­di­cat­ing its pres­ence and its ter­ri­tory.

The muskrat is a large ro­dent that is found com­monly in the wet­lands and wa­ter­ways through­out North Amer­ica, in­clud­ing the wilds of Labrador. They have a paunchy ap­pear­ance with their en­tire body cov­ered in a rich and wa­ter­proof layer of fur with the ex­cep­tion of their feet and their rat-like tail. The guard hairs are coarse and glossy in ap­pear­ance and they have short un­der fur that is very dense and silky.

Their color ranges from dark brown on their back and head to a gray­ish brown on their belly. The tail on the muskrat is slen­der, flat­tened ver­ti­cally and can be up to 25 cm in length, cov­ered with a thick scaly skin that pro­tects it. There is very lit­tle hair grow­ing on its feet, with their front feet that are hand-like and de­signed to help then in the con­struc­tion of their lodges, dig­ging channels and bur­rows and hold­ing their food.

Their hind feet are much larger than their front feet and are used in help­ing them swim. They are not webbed like the beaver and the ot­ter. They have four long toes on these feet that are cov­ered in a spe­cial­ized hair that gives the foot a pad like ef­fect. They are equipped with very small ears that are dif­fi­cult to even see.

They have four front teeth like chis­els, with two on the bot­tom and two on the top. They use these teeth very ef­fec­tively and are usu­ally about 2 cm in length and are very ef­fec­tive for chew­ing stems, roots and plants.

Muskrats typ­i­cally live in fresh­wa­ter marshes and slow mov­ing streams ad­ja­cent to marshes and marshy ar­eas around lakes. The wa­ter must be deep enough so that it will not freeze to the bot­tom dur­ing win­ter, but shal­low enough to per­mit the aquatic growth of veg­e­ta­tion for its food.

The veg­e­ta­tion is not only for food. It is used in the build­ing of mounds that we see as par­tially dried and de­cayed ma­te­rial that act as homes for the muskrat. These mounds act as lodges and feed­ing sta­tions for the an­i­mals as well as shel­ter from the wind and waves on the wa­ter.

The win­ter months are a pe­riod of rel­a­tive in­ac­tiv­ity. The muskrat spends most of its time sleep­ing and feed­ing un­til breed­ing time be­gins af­ter the spring breakup. Mat­ing oc­curs right af­ter spring breakup with few long last­ing ties be­tween the males and fe­males.

Muskrat young are born af­ter less than a month from con­cep­tion with lit­ters from five and up to 10 young in some cases. Al­though the young are blind and hair­less at birth, they de­velop quickly and be­gin leav­ing the lodge at two to three weeks of age.

A sec­ond lit­ter is com­mon and even a third in some years. These an­i­mals do not have a lengthy life­span. Three to four years is the norm in the wild as their nat­u­ral alert­ness fails and they be­come prey for minks, foxes and other nat­u­ral preda­tors.

These an­i­mals are com­mon in the fresh­wa­ter ar­eas of Labrador and are a nat­u­ral and im­por­tant com­po­nent to the ecosys­tem that makes up the to­tal sum of the wilds of Labrador.

As we are nes­tled away in the warmth of our homes in Labrador, so to is the muskrat in their homes, per­haps as ea­ger as we are for spring to ar­rive.

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