April 5, 2014
In the beginning, Kitchi-Manitou, creator of Earth, populated the lands with the Anishinabe. After these original peoples descended into conflict and war, Kitchi-Manitou flooded the lands in retribution. Nanaboozhoo was the sole survivor, along with a handful of animals. One of them was a muskrat. From their log ark, Nanaboozhoo sent the muskrat diving below the floodwaters. It returned with a pawful of earth, and from that the lands were re-created.
— Ojibway legend
I’ve written natural history columns for The Dispatch for a decade — more than 160 pieces on almost as many subjects — but never about the muskrat. Given its prominence in creation lore, an essay on the “earth diver” is overdue.
Although muskrats resemble beavers, they are only distant relatives of the much larger rodents. The muskrat is related to mice and voles, and is essentially a supersize aquatic vole.
A hefty muskrat might weigh 4 pounds; a big beaver can be 70 pounds. Beavers also have a horizontally flattened tail, while the muskrat’s is laterally compressed, as if compacted in a vise.
Because muskrats are largely nocturnal, they aren’t often seen. But their lodges are conspicuous. The large domes rise from the water like small islands and are mostly composed of vegetation. Beaver lodges look similar but are typically much larger and built of sticks and other woody material.
Muskrat lodges are well-built and watertight. The underwater entrances allow the animals to slip in and out unseen. Secret passages don’t deter minks, and the ferocious weasels sometimes enter the lodge and slay the occupants.
The pelage of a muskrat is soft, sleek and water-repellant. Their furs are coveted by trappers, and current prices have soared to about $14 per pelt. Such prices spur more trapping, but muskrats remain abundant. Females usually have two annual litters averaging six kits each. During one three-month season, 10,191 muskrats were harvested in a 2,800-acre Lake Erie marsh.
Muskrats are an important cog in wetland ecology. They are prolific grazers of aquatic plants and help to keep marshes open and free of choking growth.
Semiopen marshes usually support greater animal diversity, including waterfowl. The lodges literally support ducks and geese, which sometimes nest atop the domes.
The muskrat plays a much larger role in nature than its lowly stature might suggest.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.