Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are rodents, but they are not rats. They exist in a genus all their own, and they are native to North America. At one time muskrat fur was popular for clothing, but today muskrats play an important role in the wetlands where they live.
Muskrats can adapt to many climates, and they are omnivorous, meaning that they can eat a wide variety of foods. They resemble large rats except for their flat tails. Although they are larger than rats, they are smaller than beavers. Their short, thick fur is brown or black, but it turns partially gray with age.
Their tails are covered with scales instead of hair, and they are flattened vertically rather than horizontally like a beaver’s. Their rear feet are partially webbed for swimming, but their tails serve as the main means of propulsion in the water. Muskrats spend much of their time in the water, and they can close their ears and stay underwater for 15 minutes. They build nests by burrowing into the banks along bodies of water and making an underwater entrance for protection.
In areas outside of North America where muskrats have been introduced, they have become invasive species. In their native areas, they play a major role in determining what plants grow in the wetlands by removing selected species. They especially like cattails and yellow water lilies, and they clear areas in marshes providing open spaces for aquatic birds to land and feed. Muskrats are food for a wide variety of predators, and they play an important part of the delicate balance and intricate design of life on this planet.
© Roland Earnst