What is a Water Vole? - Habitat & Ecology

Instructor: Sujata Archer
Is that a rat or a water vole? While water voles are often mistaken for rats, they live in a very different habitat and ecology. In this lesson, you will learn more about this endangered species.

What Are Water Voles?

The water vole is a famous character in many books. The children's book Wind in the Willows had a water vole named Ratty. Tom Moorhouse has also written about water voles in his books The Rising and The River Singers. So what is it that makes water voles so interesting that they are cast as main characters in a book?

Water voles are mammals (vertebrates that are warm blooded). The European water voles, Arvicola amphibius, is sometimes called the water rat. They can be found all the way from Britain to Siberia. Due to a danger to their population, they are currently a protected species. The North American water vole, Microtus richardsoni, lives in alpine and semi-alpine meadows that are near water at elevations of around 3,000 to nearly 10,000 feet.

Water Vole Checking Out Surrounding Area
Water Vole

Among all the voles, the water vole is the largest in size. They have shiny, chestnut brown fur which keeps them warm when swimming, although the water voles in Scotland have a black fur coat. Their noses are rounded at the end and so are their ears. Their ears do not protrude out too much and have flaps that prevent water from going inside. They also have a furry tail.

The European water voles are herbivores (only consume plants) but their North American counterparts eat insects, too. Water voles can consume 80% of their body weight in food every day! They eat the stems and leaves of plants that grow near the water. They are also known to consume roots and barks of trees, such as the willow.

Water voles live in family groups, and they mark their territory boundaries by their latrines (areas where they pile their droppings). The European water voles produce approximately five litters a year and the North American water voles produce around two to three litters each year. The average lifespan is two years, which can be shortened due to predation (when an animal preys on another).

During the winter, water voles go underground but do not hibernate. They store enough food to keep them going through long periods of sleep.

Habitat and Ecology

Water voles lives in burrows that they excavate near ditches, streams, rivers, ponds and watersheds. The density of the vegetation at a site is important for water voles as the vegetation serves as a food source. They like to have areas with grass and reeds so they can build their nests above water. The grassy vegetation is also helpful in protection from predators. They need to have water all year round.

Water Vole Sheltered by the Riverbank
Water Vole

Water voles prefer riverbanks because they like to burrow and make their homes here. They choose riverbanks that are soft and stable so they can make their burrows easily and that have steep sides so predators cannot get at them easily. The nesting chambers are made above the water. The burrows they create can be as far as six feet away from the water's edge. Water voles dig their burrow in a very neat manner without leaving any debris. The underground burrows are used all year round.

Factors that are considered desirable for a water vole's habitat:

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