Around the Island

Mashomack Musings: Muskrats — What’s in a name?

When it comes to names, some animals seem to have drawn the short end of the stick.

Muskrat roughly translates to “smelly rat.” The first half of their name is accurate — muskrats have specialized glands for marking their territories with a musky odor. But the second half is false; Muskrats are not rats.

Muskrats are active in many wetlands on Shelter Island. Smaller in size than a beaver, they are most closely related to lemmings and voles. Well-adapted to life in water with ears that close to keep water out, they have semi-webbed hind feet for swimming, and a long skinny tail that acts as a rudder.

During winter they burrow into banks or use sturdy marsh vegetation such as cattails and Phragmites to build domed shelters. Folklore says the size of a muskrat lodge can predict the severity of the upcoming winter.

For a small animal, muskrats have an oversized influence on neighboring plants and animals. Muskrats can remove up to 20% of marsh vegetation through grazing and lodge construction.

These clearings are beneficial to other species, which are unable to inhabit densely vegetated areas. For example, muskrat clearings in Western New York provide courtship and nesting areas for the state-endangered Black Tern.

Turtles also winter inside muskrat dens while Mallard ducks will nest on top.

At first glance, this animal may seem like a pest or “just a large rat.” But the muskrat is an engineer in disguise, boosting the productivity of our wetlands and providing homes for other wildlife.