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Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus Linnaeus) is not actually a rat, but is classified as a rodent because of its teeth: four large, yellowish incisors in the front of its mouth. has long been one of the most valuable furbearers in North America, yielding annual continental catches of as many as 11 million animals and fur sale values exceeding $30 million as recently as the early 1980s.
This species can adapt to a wide variety of climates. Muskrats are dependent upon habitats including water. This species thrives in many lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes. Muskrats can tolerate a certain amount of pollution in water, and this important furbearer is often found living within large cities.
Muskrats are from 18 to 24 inches long (including the tail) and weigh 2 to 5 pounds. They have small ears and eyes and often sit hunched over. Muskrats look somewhat like a beaver, though beavers are much larger (25 to 75 pounds). Also, beavers have a wide, flat tail, while the muskratâ€™s tail, though also scaled and hairless, is thinner and flattened laterally, like a boat rudder.
Muskrats have small front feet, used mainly to hold food, but their hind feet are large and webbed. These act as paddles, propelling the muskrat through the water as it steers with its strong tail.Muskrats are chocolate brown on the back, fading to light brown with a reddish tinge on the sides. The belly and throat are cream-colored.
Cattail is a primary food for muskrats throughout much of North America, often constituting as much as 80 percent of their diet. However, muskrats also eat the shoots, roots, bulbs, and leaves of a variety of other aquatic plants including bulrushes, horsetails, sedges, smartweeds, water lilies, duckweeds, and pondweeds and, especially in summer, upland plants such as grasses, clovers, various forbs, and cultivated crops such as alfalfa and corn. Primarily herbivorous, muskrats occasionally eat animal matter such as clams, snails, and bird nestlings, as well as items such as fish and other muskrats that are probably taken primarily as carrion.
Muskrats have small home ranges that rarely extend more than about 100 m from their lodges or bank dens. The basic social unit is a breeding pair, which defends its home range territory against occupation by other adults, especially during the breeding season, although lodges may be as close as 8 to 10 m apart when population density is high. Fighting among muskrats is common, especially when populations are high.
Life Cycle: Muskrats are one of our most prolific species. Adult muskrats can have up to five litters in a yearâ€™s time. Muskrats in northern states seem to average about 2.5 litters a year. Muskrats in southern states often average 3 litters. Litter sizes vary, and 5 or 6 kits per litter is common. There is evidence that muskrat populations may be somewhat cyclic.
Muskrats produce fewer litters when populations are dense and more litters when populations are sparse. The quality and abundance of food also affects the number of litters as well as litter sizes.
Female muskrats born in the spring are sometimes capable of raising their own litter by late summer or early autumn. An average female muskrat will raise about 15 or 16 young in a good year. One female muskrat has been known to produce 46 young in one year. The gestation period for muskrats is 29 days. Muskrats are thought to have one mate during rearing seasons. Populations can be estimated in the fall by counting lodges, and multiplying by 5.
Muskrats have many predators, including: Raccoon, Red Fox, owls, hawks, American Bald Eagles, Common Snapping Turtle, Bullfrog, snakes, and Largemouth Bass; as well as cats, dogs, and people.Muskrats leave scent posts, a small pile of leaves and grass blades mixed with body fluids, to mark their territory.
Muskrat Problems: The habit of digging tunnels in the banks of ponds and streams causes conflict between man and muskrat. Muskrat dens dug into a farm pond dam could cause failure of the dam, and there is also danger of people and livestock breaking through the top of a tunnel and being injured. Riprap along the dam face can deter muskrats from burrowing into a dam. Riprap should be at least 3 feet below water level and extend to at least 1 foot above the water level.
This technique can be used for dams that are already constructed as well as for ponds under construction. Water control devices in dams should have a concrete apron to prevent muskrat burrows from compromising these structures.
Social Behavior: Social system â€“ The structure of a small muskrat population changes seasonally. Population density, habitat, water levels, and food supply are important determinants of the mating system and social organization. At the onset of the breeding season, adults become aggressive, and in most cases, monogamous pairs occupy home ranges from which they exclude other adults by hostile behavior and scent marking. The home range, in effect, serves as a breeding territory. Contact between a pair may be limited to mating, and the male rarely aids in caring for the young.
Occasionally, when a muskrat population reaches a high density, i.e., many adults present in a small area, dominance hierarchies form, and adults are promiscuous or polygynous during the breeding season. Outside the breeding season, muskrats are solitary except at times during the winter when several may share a den to conserve body heat. Home ranges vary in size from 30-350 m (100- 120 ft) in diameter. Individuals confine much of their activity to the area within 15 m (50 ft) of the den. Densities range from 2.5-62.5 muskrats per ha (1-25 per acre).
Communication : Muskrats deposit on oily liquid from glands located near the anus, the â€śmuskâ€ť of the muskrat. These chemical messages provide clues about the sexual condition and the identity of a resident. Accumulations of droppings on logs and other objects indicate scent posts. Tactile cues include â€śkissingâ€ť, and mutual grooming. Posturing and vocalizations such as â€śchirpingâ€ť, and â€śwhiningâ€ť function as signals, too. Muskrats sometimes slap their tail on the water, possibly to alert neighbors of impending danger.
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