What is so romantic about rodents?
In the case of muskrats, there is clearly something that inspired songsters Captain and Tennille in the mid-1970s: who doesn’t remember the refrain?
“And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed
Singin’ and jingin’ a jango
Floatin’ like the heavens above
It looks like muskrat love.”
It was definitely a favorite for this muskrat (and Captain and Tennille) fan.
Muskrat love is in the air. Or perhaps what is in the air is the odor of musk left by these semi-aquatic rodents. Their name describes the scent that they leave to mark their territory and communicate with other muskrats.
Now is the time that one is most likely to see muskrats. Though usually considered crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), during the spring mating season muskrats are often out during the day. At Felix Neck, staff and visitors have been spotting muskrats in Turtle Pond over the past week.
These mammals of the marsh live, eat, sleep and die in wetlands. With a foraging range of only about 50 feet, muskrats are truly locavores. Though mainly plant eaters, consuming about 95 per cent vegetative matter, muskrats will dabble with carnivores, munching on small turtles, frogs, mussels and fish. These hungry rodents eat one third of their weight in food daily! Only when seeking a new den do muskrats travel farther afield: They have been known to trek as far as 500 feet from their natal lodge to set up a new home.
Being a homebody has its disadvantages. Predators of muskrat, including otter, snapping turtles, snakes, owls, hawks and people, can find them easily — and do. In South Jersey, a 50-year tradition is a muskrat dinner held as a benefit for the Salem County FireDepartment. This popular event (three sittings are offered) features fried muskrat and all of thefixings.
More people might consider eating muskrats if they knew of their designation by the Roman Catholic Church. Since muskrats swim, they have been described by purveyors as “equivalent to fish,” and some archdioceses, including Detroit’s, have agreed, providing dispensation to Catholics to allow them to eat muskrat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent.
Muskrats have also historically been trapped for their fur, which has incredible insulating capacity.
Beyond food and fur, muskrats boast other unique adaptations. Consider their mouth, which, like all rodents’, features a pair of incisor teeth with lips to cover these choppers when eating. This allows muskrats to eat when they are submerged, chewing without getting a mouthful ofwater.
In some ways, they are like fish, with exceptional swimming abilities. Muskrats can swim forward and backward at speeds up to three miles per hour and stay underwater 17 minutes. A laterally compressed tail, which is as long as the body of the muskrat, assists with speed and acts as a rudder.
By far the most impressive feat of the muskrat is the creation of the world. Native American folklore describes Earth’s genesis thus: “In the beginning, all the world was water. One day the Old Man, also called Napi, was curious to find out what might be beneath the water. So he sent animals to dive beneath the surface. First duck, then otter, then Badger dived in vain. The Old Man then sent Muskrat diving to the depths. After a long time muskrat rode to the surface holding between his paws, a little ball of mud, and then blew upon it. The mud began to swell, growing larger, and larger, until it became the whole earth.”
With that kind of muskrat might, what is not to love about this rascally rodent?
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.