Saturday, December 7, 2013

Muskrats: Masters of winter survival and cozy construction!

Photos by Jonathan Schechter, Oakland County, Michigan 

The muskrats of Michigan are perfectly adapted to their semi-aquatic life style. And just like their much larger cousin the beaver, they are pros at constructing cozy lodges.  But unlike  beavers that built large lodges from  sections of trees they gnawed down and branches they gathered, muskrat uses wetland vegetation as building material. Lodges have an underwater entrance and a cozy above water level feeding platform. Most of the winter is spent in the lodge sleeping and keeping warm and sometimes the lodge is even shared with other muskrats. Muskrats the live in areas devoid of abundant vegetation have another trick; they dig burrows into banks and create subterranean homes. Predation hazards remain in winter for all muskrats; for they are hunted by mink and on days when muskrats venture above the ice or snow they can fall victim to red-tailed hawks. But for most of winter they are safe for they have another neat trick of adaption.  Not long after the ice forms they chew though thin ice to create an opening and then build a tiny lodge of  mud and vegetative matter on top of the ice known to wildlife biologists as "push-ups".  The push-ups function as  small feeding stations and secure resting areas when on underwater forays for food away from their main lodge. The push ups remind me of the  back country shelters that add to the comfort and safety of  hikers on the Appalachian Trail!


To some the muskrat is nothing but a large pesky  field mouse. But to those that know this amazing "water rat", it's a cleaver creature that makes the best of its harsh environment. The muskrat even has four chisel like teeth that protrude ahead of its cheeks and lips that seal tightly behind the teeth enabling this amazing well adapted creature to chew on vegetation underwater with its mouth closed or swim on the surface with a mouthful of  veggies!                                             


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