What is a Muskrat? - Definition, Characteristics & Types

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

The muskrat may seem like just a rodent, but it's actually a fascinating animal. This lesson will define muskrat and then go over characteristics of this semi-aquatic rodent.

What is a Muskrat?

While you might not initially be excited about muskrats, this lesson is apt to change your mind… I mean how can a giant, swimming rat not piqué your interest? Not convinced? What if I told you that muskrats have fascinated humans for years? For example, some Native American tribes, like the Chippewa and the Menominee tribes, use the muskrat as a clan animal. Or that the muskrat inspired a song in the 1970s entitled 'Muskrat Love,' which depicted the love between two fictitious muskrats: Sam and Suzie. Or that muskrat fur is often used to make clothing.

But, what exactly is a muskrat? Such a good question! A muskrat is a semi- aquatic rodent that is native to North America (but has been introduced to other areas). Let's take a closer look at some of the characteristics of the muskrat.

Muskrat fur is used to make coats, hats and other clothing

Muskrat Characteristics

Although their name suggests it, muskrats are not rats. They are rodents, like rats, gerbils, hamsters, and voles (just to name a few), so they look rat-like, but they actually belong to their own group. They are usually brown, but some members can be nearly white, whereas others can be black.

Muskrats are usually brown, but sometimes they can be white or black. This image shows an albino muskrat.

Muskrats are about the size of large rats, weighing between one-and-a-half to four pounds and reaching lengths up to 25 inches (including their 8-inch tails). They live in social groups and mark their territories by releasing a musk scent from glands. Hey, I guess I can see how they get the MUSK RAT name!

Because they live in wetlands, swamps, and other aquatic regions, muskrats are built for swimming. They have webbed hind feet, a tail that helps them steer, and they can hold their breath for over 15 minutes at a time. They are great diggers and often dig burrows, lodges, and tunnels near or in the water.

The muskrat is well suited to a semi aquatic life.

Muskrats will eat whatever they can get their paws on. In fact a muskrat must eat 1/3rd of its body weight every day. Sometimes, when food is scarce, they will resort to eating family members. You better believe that wasn't a part of the song, 'Muskrat Love.' They also eat vegetation, snails, fish, and birds.

Muskrats are really good at making more muskrats. In fact, one pair can have as many as 20 babies in one season. Muskrat offspring, called kits, rely on their parents for about thirty days after their birth.

Lastly, most muskrats don't live beyond a year, as they are prey to many animals. For example, owls, largemouth bass, coyotes, lynx, and mink are some of the muskrat's main predators.

Muskrat Classification

Let's take a moment to check out how muskrats fit into the Animal Kingdom. As mentioned earlier, they are rodents, thus they belong to the Rodentia Order, which is the largest group of mammals. In fact, nearly 40% of mammals are rodents! So it's safe to say, muskrats are in good company.

Classification system

Muskrats belong to the genus, Ondatra, which is an Indian word meaning 'muskrat.' They are the only species within that genus and their species name is Ondatra zibethicus. A fun fact for you… the word zibethicus is Latin for 'musky odor,' which seems to be a good descriptor (remember they release a musky scent).

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