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GARY SHAW: A glimpse into the muskrat way of life

Walk on the Wild Side
Walk on the Wild Side - SaltWire Network

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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