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Muskrats are agile swimmers

Looking at a wetland in the Iowa Great Lakes, you might see ripples coming from a moving little dot.

Photo of a muskrat

Muskrats are adorable creatures that can glide through the water because of their dense fur that traps air for insulation and buoyancy, and they are very active this time of year. Let’s take a look at some fun muskrat facts.

They are related to rats, distantly.

Muskrats are the largest species in the family Arvicolinae, which includes 142 other species of rodents such as rats, voles and lemmings. Muskrats are 16-25 inches long, with a flat, scaly tail that is 7-12 inches. They weigh 3-4 pounds.

RELATIVE SIZES OF MUSKRAT, GROUNDHOG, NUTRIA, BEAVER AND OTTER.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Muskrats are fast in the water but slow on land.

Muskrats are active mid-afternoon into the night, and they spend much of their time in the water where they look for green vegetation to eat. In the summer, they will dive to eat the roots of aquatic plants — they’re able to stay underwater for up to 15 minutes — and in the winter, they will swim under ice to look for vegetation. Muskrats can swim in frigid water due to something called regional heterothermia, which regulates blood flow to their non-furry feet and tails, allowing these body parts to be cooler than the main part of the body, so their main body stays nice and warm in cold water.

Photo of a muskrat in the water

The water is a safe space for muskrats, because they can escape predators such as raccoons, coyotes and owls by diving deep or by swimming into their burrows and nests. They paddle with their large, webbed back feet and use their flat tail to help them change direction. They can even swim backward.

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On land, muskrats are much less agile.

Muskrats have large families, but no one is guaranteed a spot.

Muskrats live in wetland areas with large family groups, and they have clearly defined territories. They produce many young, with one adult female capable of having two-three litters of up to 10 kits each summer. However, if an area is getting too crowded, females will kick their offspring out of the group and force them to find a new place to live. Kits can live on their own after only one month.

Muskrats communicate through scent, called musk, although their sight, hearing and smell senses are not well developed. Their scent is also a way to warn intruders, and they also communicate through squeaks and squeals.

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