PEI

7 cool facts about muskrats on P.E.I.

What weighs three or four pounds, is brown and furry and can hold its breath under water for long periods of time? A muskrat! And they're likely in a P.E.I. marsh near you.

Muskrats have a 'very high reproductive output'

Muskrats enjoy a meal of cattail shoots. (David Komljenovic)

What weighs three or four pounds, is brown and furry and can hold its breath under water for long periods of time?

It's a muskrat!

The semi-aquatic rodents look like a beaver, but are much smaller and without the flat paddle tail — and they're everywhere on P.E.I. 

"It's sometimes referred to as an overgrown field rat," said Garry Gregory, a conservation biologist with P.E.I. Fish and Wildlife. Gregory did his master's project a few years ago studying the Island's muskrat population, and filled us in on some muskrat facts. 

1. Covering the Island like the dew

While the muskrat population is not believed to be at historically high levels, they're still very abundant.

"They're still our most numerous fur-bearer, by far," explained Gregory, with numbers in the tens of thousands. 

Muskrats have two and occasionally three litters per year of five to six babies per litter. The young can sometimes procreate within the first summer too. This "very high reproductive output," Gregory agreed, could be where the song Muskrat Love came from.

2. 'Bread and butter' of fur trade

Muskrats are the most commonly-harvested wild animal on P.E.I. because they are numerous and easy to trap, making them the "bread and butter" of the fur trade.

Muskrats have two or sometimes even three litters of babies every year. (Submitted by Garry Gregory )

P.E.I. trappers bring in about 4,000 muskrats every year, but even that is half of what it was in the early 1980s, Gregory said.

The value of muskrat and other fur has also declined — last year a muskrat pelt was worth only $3 to $4 — due to world market conditions, he noted. 

3. 'Seasonally monogamous'

Muskrats don't mate for life, but pairs will stay together for a season and generally refuse to mate with others. 

4. Diving specialists

Muskrats can swim under water for up to 20 minutes if they're not exerting themselves. Now that would earn some swimming lesson badges. 

5. Food and lodging

Muskrats eat mostly cattail shoots. 

Like beavers, they remain active under the ice all winter. 

Juvenile muskrats born in spring sometimes reproduce within their first summer. (Submitted by Garry Gregory )

They make their homes in the Island's many marshes and streams, and like beavers, build lodges — but theirs are made of mud and vegetation instead of sticks. They don't dam water sources as beavers do. They will wander afield in the spring looking for a mate.

"We get calls every once in a while: 'We're nowhere near water, why is there a muskrat in my parking lot?'" laughed Gregory, noting the solution is to let the muskrat find its own way. 

6. Lots of lips

Muskrats have a second set of lips that closes behind their front incisors so they can dive underwater, chew and eat without swallowing water. 

Those incisors, like a rat's or a beaver's, are ever-growing, so they have to gnaw things to keep them under control. 

7. They're popular dinner 'guests' 

"They're one of the primary prey resources in the marsh ecosystem for sure," said Gregory. 

Coyotes, eagles, owls, foxes, raccoons and mink all eat muskrats, and very healthy levels of all these animals point to a healthy muskrat population.

Where muskrats can live to be four years old, their popularity as dinner usually means they only live a season or two.

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