Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ondatra zibethicus

While beavers are the best-known semiaquatic rodent in North America, there's another that's more widespread: the muskrat! Muskrats are found in streams, marshes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers, where they build small lodges out of cattails, reeds, and other plant materials. Unlike beavers, they don't create dams. Muskrats are a fraction of the size of beavers, usually weighing in at no more than two and a half pounds. Like the beaver, though, their fur is dense, soft, and waterproof — and as a result has long been an important part of the fur industry.

Earlier this week, we came upon a muskrat that had just been hit on the highway. Not far from where the body rested was a small creek, its waters higher with the recent rain and snow melt. After retrieving the muskrat, I brought it home to photograph. Right away, I made several observations, the first of which surprised me: muskrats do not have webbed feet! The toes on their hind feet are lined with thick, bristly fur which acts like webbing. Their appearance reminded me a lot of the feet of grebes and coots.

Muskrat claws are an interesting shape, as well. They're surprisingly sharp! The claws are long for a non-climbing rodent.

Beavers are famous for their broad, flat tails. Muskrats have flat tails as well, but they're dorsally flattened. The tail acts as a means of propulsion in the water, and this is quite obvious when the animals are seen swimming. In addition to being "scaly", the tail of the muskrat is also covered in sparse, bristly hair. Though the tail appears to be tough and rigid, it's actually quite pliable. 

What struck me the most about this animal, though, was its fur. I've handled a lot of furbearers — mammals whose pelts are important to the fur industry — and muskrat fur is, by far, the most luxurious I've had the pleasure to feel. It's dense, thick, sleek, and soft all at once. Unlike other freshly-dead mammals I've examined, this muskrat seemed to have no external parasites: no fleas, no lice, no ticks. Could this be a result of the muskrat's thick fur and mostly-aquatic habits?

The muskrat has a very important role in Ojibwe lore, especially in relation to the creation story. One of the many versions of that story can be read here.

After I was done with the body, I rolled it down the riverbank for the neighborhood scavengers. Within a few hours, a pair of crows was feasting upon it.

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