Muskrat (Fiber Zibethicus, Cuv.), an American rodent, the only species of its genus, well known for its aquatic habits; it is also called musquash, musk beaver, and ondatra. The dentition is: incisors 2/2-, and molars fzf, in all 16 teeth. The body is rat-like, the head and neck short; the eyes and ears very small, the latter having no special arrangement except their dense fur to exclude the water; the upper lip not cleft, and hairy between the teeth and nose; lips thick and fleshy; nose thick and obtuse; six horizontal rows of whiskers, with some over the eve and under the chin: the legs short, and the thighs hid in the body; the claws compressed and incurved, the third toe the longest on the fore feet and the fourth on the hind feet; the hind feet appear slightly twisted, the inner edge posterior to the outer, by which the animal can "feather the oar" when the foot is brought forward in swimming; all the feet are partly webbed, naked below, covered with short hairs above, and have their edges more or less margined with bristly fringes; the tail is two thirds as long as the body, compressed, two-edged at the end, scaly, with short thin hair; the fore feet are four-toed, with a wart-like thumb, and the hind feet five-toed. The head and body are from 13 to 15 in. long, and the tail 9 or 10 in.; the general color is ruddy brown above, darker on the back, and cinereous beneath; some specimens are very dark brown; the long hair is fine, compact, and silky, with coarser hairs intermingled, especially above.
It is more extensively distributed over North America than the beaver, and unlike the latter does not disappear at the approach of civilization; it is found from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Rio Grande to arctic America, even on the N. W. coast; it occurs nowhere in the old world. Fortunately for the rice planter, it is not found in the alluvial lands of the Caro-linas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, though it extends much further south. Its favorite locality is a grassy marsh or bank of a lake or sluggish stream; nocturnal in habit, it is occasionally seen in the daytime swimming a stream or diving into the mouth of its hole; awkward on land, it is an excellent swimmer and diver, and very lively and playful in the water; it often swims 15 or 20 yards under water. The burrows are made in banks skirting streams, the entrances being under water, thence leading upward above the highest freshets; their winter galleries often extend 40 or 50 ft. from the water, the central part containing the nests, made of dried reeds and grasses; in swamps and marshy lands they sometimes raise mounds of sticks, twigs, and leaves from 2 to 4 ft. above the surface, in which are their grassy beds large enough to accommodate several animals; the entrance to these is also under water, the surface of which they take care shall not be entirely frozen.
The fur was once in great demand for hats, and hundreds of thousands of skins were annually exported for this purpose to Europe; their value is now very small, as they are used chiefly for cheap furs; the animal, however, is generally killed when possible, to prevent the destruction of dams and embankments. They are not at all cunning, and may be caught in ordinary box traps, or in steel traps placed just under water and baited with sweet apples or parsnips; they are often dug out of their holes, hunted by dogs, and speared in their nests. Great numbers are killed by lynxes, foxes, owls, and other rapacious mammals and birds. Like the common rat, they are omnivorous, feeding on grasses, roots, vegetables, mussels and other mollusks, fruits, and even flesh; they are injurious rather from digging under embankments and undermining meadows than from destroying vegetation either in field or garden. They are very prolific, bringing forth four to six young at a time, three times a year. They have a strong musky odor, which to most persons is less offensive than that of the mink, and far less so than that of the skunk; the flesh is considered palatable in some localities.
Muskrat (Fiber zibethicus).