| Posted: Wednesday, Jul 18, 2012 06:00 am
Name: Ondatra zibethicus
Appearance: Giant, rotund, brown-furred long-tailed field mouse that swims.
Commonly seen: swimming in ponds and rivers, minding its own business.
Often confused with: beavers (which are way bigger).
Fun fact: they can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes.
Wild St. Albert
Like wildlife? So do we! Starting today, the Gazette will be profiling a reasonably common wild creature in the St. Albert region every other week. Birds, beasts, bugs, fish … so long as it's alive and kicking, we'll feature it.
Got a creature you'd like to see profiled? Send your suggestions to email@example.com.
Meet the muskrat
A few weeks ago, I was taking pictures of some yellow-headed blackbirds near Big Lake when I heard a strange sound: skritch-skritch-skritch, skritch-skritch-skritch.
When I looked down from the Big Lake Environment Support Society's platform, I was pleasantly surprised to see a muskrat nibbling away at a dried reed that was longer than its entire body. A few moments later it had grabbed the reed in its teeth, paddled to the opposite shore and disappeared with it underwater.
Muskrats are the most commonly seen mammal on waterways in St. Albert, according to local naturalist Dan Stoker. You can find them anywhere along the Sturgeon River at this time of year, as well as at Grandin Pond.
"For every one observation that might be made of a beaver," he says, "you are likely to make 10 to 20 or more sightings of muskrats locally."
Muskrats are semi-aquatic rodents with dense, waterproof, chestnut-brown fur that is prized by trappers, according to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
They're called "musk" rats due to the musk glands they have near the anus, according to Hinterland Who's Who. Biologists think they use the musky yellow substance secreted by these glands for communication, as they drop the stuff along their travel routes.
Many people confuse muskrats with beavers but there's a huge size difference, says Holly Duvall, who sees a lot of muskrats as an animal care manager with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton.
"A beaver is like a small dog, whereas a muskrat is smaller than a cat," she says.
Muskrats also have thin tails instead of wide, flat ones like beavers, according to Hinterland Who's Who. Unlike beavers, which have webbed feet, muskrats simply have hair-fringed toes that look webbed.
Muskrats use their back feet to swim with their tails acting as rudders. When they encounter tasty plants, they can grasp them in their tiny forepaws and chew them with their giant teeth. They can close their gums behind those teeth too, which lets them chew with their mouth closed underwater.
The muskrat I saw was likely collecting reeds to repair its lodge, Duvall says. Made of mud and reeds, these homes resemble brown domes and are often found at the edge of lakes and rivers. Muskrats will pile up vegetation and then burrow into the bank underneath them to create an entrance. They'll also build smaller "push-up" domes over holes in the ice during winter as rest stops when they dive for dinner.
You'll typically see a muskrat ambling about in the water munching reeds or digging for roots, Duvall says.
"Right now they'll have babies," she adds, so you might see some parents teaching their kids how to build homes.
Stoker says one of his neatest muskrat moments came last fall at the pond near the Enjoy Centre when he heard a rustling in the plants.
"I looked into the water through the perfectly clear solid ice to watch an escaping muskrat in swimming mode churning up the sediments," he says. The animal propelled its way to the deep centre of the pond.
"It gave me an odd feeling to watch it move silently in an entirely alien world – the freezing cold water below the ice," Stoker says.
Residents should avoid littering near wetlands, Duvall says, as muskrats can get tangled up in trash. Muskrats usually run away if approached, but can be fierce if cornered.
"You just want to leave them with their families and leave them alone."