Classification: Fur Bearing Wildlife Species
Status: Very abundant. One of the most important fur animals in North America. Can cause damage to dikes by burrowing. Very valuable fur animal. Official Montana furbearer managed and protected by regulated fur harvest seasons.
Identifying Characteristics: Muskrats are large voles adapted to aquatic conditions. The name muskrat is related to odoriferous secretions from the perineal glands. The long naked tail flattened laterally distinguishes muskrats from other mammals. Webbed hind feet. Fur is dense and rich brown and a coarse guard hair overlay and thick waterproof underlayer. Color varies from dark brown to black. Total length: 16 to 26 inches. Weight: 2 to 4 pounds.
Habitat: The most widespread of North American microtine (a subfamily of mice) rodents. Marshes, edges of ponds, lakes, streams, cattails, and rushes are typical habitats. An essential habitat ingredient is water of sufficient depth or velocity to prevent freezing. The presence of herbaceous vegetation, both aquatic and terrestrial, is another essential ingredient. In general, has very flexible habitat requirements and often coexists in habitats used by beavers.
Food Habits: Primarily herbivorous and will eat virtually any vegetable matter. Utilizes shoots, roots, bulbs, and leaves of aquatic plants. Cattails and bulrush are preferred foods. Will also consume cultivated crops. On occasion will eat animal matter. Food is stored in the burrow or den and during winter may even eat part of its own lodge.
Life History: May be thought of as an overgrown subaquatic vole. Mostly active at night but daytime activity is not unusual. Often builds conspicuous dome-shaped houses. Breeds during spring and summer. 5 or 6 young are born after a 22 to 30 gestation. May have two or three litters per year.
Similar Species: Beaver - has large dorsally flattened scale over tail.
The muskrat is a common and valuable furbearer. Muskrats are widely distributed throughout North America. 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.
The muskrat is classified as a rodent because of its four incisor teeth in the front of the mouth. The two upper and two lower incisors overlap, allowing them to self-sharpen as they are used. Folds of skin behind the incisors allow a submerged muskrat to cut vegetation without getting water into its mouth. The size and weight of muskrats varies with regions, and the quality of food available. Southern muskrats average around two pounds in weight, and weights of three and four pounds are common for muskrats in the Northern states. Most adult muskrats attain a length of 22-25 inches, including the nearly hairless tail.
The muskrat has relatively small front feet, with four major toes and small thumbs. Hind feet are much larger, and partially webbed. The tail of a muskrat is deeper than it is wide, and it tapers to a blunt point at the end. The species use their tails as an aid to swimming.
Muskrat fur is short and dense. Colors are mostly browns with lighter shades of greys or blondes on chest and stomach areas. The underfur traps air, and prevents the skin of the muskrat from becoming wet while it is in the water. Musk glands are predominant beneath the skin on the lower abdomen of male muskrats. These two glands become swollen during the spring and produce a yellowish, musky smelling fluid.
Muskrats are one of our most prolific species. Adult muskrats can have up to five litters in a year'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 are somewhat sociable with others of the same species, but will often fight to the death as populations become dense. Preferred foods include a variety of vegetation, including roots, stems, and buds. Muskrats often seek out undercut banks for protection while feeding. Food is usually carried by this furbearer by mouth, and eating takes place above the water level. Muskrats are often active during the day, as well as night, with peak activities near dawn and dusk. Muskrats commonly stay underwater for five minutes while searching for food and they are capable of holding their breath underwater for 10-12 minutes. Territory sizes vary according to population densities and the quality of the habitat. These territories average about 200 feet in diameter in marsh habitats, and slightly longer along streams. Dispersals occur when the young are encouraged to leave the dens. Most of the young muskrats do not move further away than 200 feet in good habitats. Adult muskrats sometimes disburse further distances, particularly in the early spring before mating season begins.
In many marshy areas muskrats build dome shaped lodges of vegetation in the water, similar to beaver lodges, but smaller in size, these lodges have one or more underwater entrances, and commonly house an entire family group. Smaller but similar structures are known as "push-ups". These push-ups usually serve a muskrat as a protected feeding and resting area, especially after ice forms on the water surface. Bank dens are common and these usually have underwater entrances leading upwards to hollowed out chambers in the bank above the waterline. Trails of air bubbles can often be seen through thin ice. These bubble trails are made by muskrats exhaling air as they swim beneath the frozen surface.
Uncontrolled muskrat populations do cause damage to private property and habitat. Hole digging activities undermine earthen dams and dikes. Damages also occur to irrigation canals and farm ponds. Large populations of muskrats also cause "eat-outs". These areas are simply overcropped by the feeding activities of the muskrats and the loss of vegetation and resulting silting makes the area less productive for other wildlife species as well. Muskrat "eat-outs" often destroy the roots of the vegetation, and it may take 15-20 years for the habitat to return to its original capacity to serve wildlife.
Muskrats are an important prey for a variety of wildlife, including mink, fox, coyotes, hawks and owls.
One major disease is Errington's disease. This serious virus can live in mud and infect muskrats in areas that have been uninhabited by other muskrats for as long as 5 years. Epidemics can and do occur with this devastating disease. Muskrats are also vulnerable to tularemia, and a variety of internal and external parasites.
Few muskrats attain four years of age.
Did You Know?
Jim Bridger (1804-1881). Trapper, scout, mountain man. One of first white men to see the future Yellowstone Park and Great Salt Lake, which he believed to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Became partner of Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830 and established Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory in 1842. Laid out routes for the Central Overland Stage and Pike's Peak Express Company. Returned to Missouri in 1867 where died on his farm on July 17, 1881.
Rendezvous were held on a yearly basis at various locations until 1840, mainly in Wyoming, but Pierre's Hole in Idaho and Bear Lake in northwest Utah were favorite sites as well.
Fort Manuel Lisa was established in 1807 by Manuel Lisa at the mouth of the Big Horn River near Hysham. This was the first permanent settlement in Montana and was occupied until 1811.
John Jacob Astor was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the US. He amassed his wealth through fur-trading, opium smuggling, and New York City real estate. Famed patron of the arts. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest person in the US.
In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company was approaching its 250th year in business. What began in a coffee house in London, in 1670, had now grown to become the undisputed leader of the international fur trade.
The desire for beaver fur hats in European men’s fashions dates back centuries and spurred the development of the 17th century North American fur trade. Beaver fur was the most prized of the fur trade because of its water repellant qualities. Encouraged by European trade goods, natives hunted beaver to extinction in some areas.
Destroying the Myth
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