Muskrat is a considerably large rodent species with a thick coat that is colored in brown. The long tail lacks fur and is covered in scales. It's flattened vertically, acting as a rudder that allows the animal to maneuver while in the water. Like the closely related beaver, muskrat lives near water. As a matter of fact, these two are the only mammals, constructing their dens directly in the water, where they live during the winter months and rear their offspring.
Muskrats are found in North America and Eurasia. North American population occurs from northern parts of the continent southwards to the Gulf coast, reaching the Mexican border. They mostly inhabit wetlands, areas in or near saline and freshwater wetlands, rivers, lakes, streams, or ponds.
Muskrats live in large social units, which are family groups. Each group has its own home range. Sometimes, when the territory is too small for the group, females will drive their young away. However, even in cases if fighting and cannibalism take place, the group doesn't disperse but remains united. Muskrat families build nests to protect themselves and their young from cold and predators. In streams, ponds, or lakes, muskrats burrow into the bank with an underwater entrance. These entrances are 6-8 in (15-20 cm) wide. In marshes, push-ups are constructed from vegetation and mud. These push-ups are up to 3 ft (91 cm) in height. In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day. Some muskrat push-ups are swept away in spring floods and have to be replaced each year. These rodents are most active at night or near dawn and dusk. Although slow on land, muskrats are known to be excellent swimmers. Moreover, when diving, they are capable of remaining submerged for as long as 12-17 minutes at a time. They use musk as the primary form of communication as well as a warning for outsiders. Muskrats also associate through vocalizations, including squeaks and squeals. Quick temperature changes, combined with dry and hot weather negatively affect these animals.
Muskrats are primarily herbivorous, their diet generally consists of cattails, sedges, rushes, water lilies, pondweeds, and other aquatic vegetation. Depending on geographical location, they may also consume occasional clams, mussels, snails, crayfish, small fish, and frogs.
Muskrats are polygynandrous (promiscuous) animals: this is when both males and females have multiple mates. Muskrats mate between March and August. During the mating season, males compete for their mating rights. The gestation period lasts for less than a month, yielding 5-10 young. Females may produce up to 3 litters per season, usually every month. Although newborn muskrats are blind, helpless, and lack fur, they grow up very quickly. By one week old, their skin exhibits thin fur. By 2 weeks old, the young open their eyes. Muskrats begin venturing from the den at 2-3 weeks old, typically taking short trips before returning to the den. They are weaned at 3 weeks old, gaining independence at 6 weeks old. The age of reproductive maturity is 1 year old.
Most of the threats to muskrats' population have to do with human activities. These animals are commonly trapped for their pelts that have high commercial value worldwide. In areas where these rodents are abundant, they negatively affect the environment, often causing habitat destruction. Thus, due to their burrowing habits, muskrats occasionally damage river banks. Furthermore, because of over-consumption, they reduce the amount of aquatic vegetation. For these and other reasons, muskrats hunted and poisoned throughout their range as a pest species.
According to IUCN, the Muskrat is abundant and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers are stable.
Muskrats are a key prey species for local predators. In addition, their populations naturally cycle; in areas where they become abundant, muskrats are capable of removing much of the vegetation in wetlands. They are thought to play a major role in determining the vegetation of prairie wetlands in particular. They also selectively remove preferred plant species, thereby changing the abundance of plant species in many kinds of wetlands. Muskrats also build feeding platforms in wetlands; they help maintain open areas in marshes, which helps to provide habitat for aquatic birds.