NOTES FROM A MUSKY TRAIL HIKER #3: Muskrat Suzie
A regular blog sharing a biology observation from my hike on the Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area trail in Asbury.
Could there be a more perfect animal for the Musky than the muskrat? It just seems to have been named for us, but muskrats are all over the US, not just New Jersey. And they are rodents, but not rats. The “musk” part, of course, has nothing to do with our river, but rather, with the musky scent they give off to mark their territory. The word “Muskrat” is derived from the Lenape tribe – known to have moved about the Musconetcong Valley – who called them “moskwas”.
On my near-dusk trail hike one evening, I ran into Muskrat Suzie. She and Muskrat Sam had been reported doing the jitterbug out in Muskrat Land. [Thank you Captain & Tennile – those crazy and imaginative 70’s musicians who believed a song about muskrats hadn’t been done yet and could make a career. Number 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973!]
It was unusual for me to catch sight of a muskrat on land, which was probably because I was hiking near dusk, and they are active at night. Muskrats are responsible for the 6-8” holes you see along the banks of the river. Those burrows provide safety from predators and humans. By the time I realized what I was looking at, Suzie was gone, and there was never a splash. That burrow probably came up somewhere in the middle of the river and muskrats can stay under water for up to 17 minutes.
Muskrats have some pretty interesting anatomy. Their hind feet are semi-webbed and they are awkward on land, leaving a distinctive trail from their tail dragging between their legs. In water, those tails (oddly covered with scales, not hair) are their main means of propulsion. They don't usually travel more than 150 feet from where they were born, feeding mostly on aquatic vegetation, with an occasional snack of crayfish or freshwater mussels. They eat one-third of their body weight every day – which helps keep the waterways open for other animals to swim. Your bonus odd fact about muskrats – they can swim backwards!
Trapping muskrats is still permitted, with a permit. They are not as valuable as they once were, but the pelts can be used for coats, and some still eat muskrat. I read that the trick to making muskrat edible is in the marinade and that, “it tastes the same as duck”. Um. OK. Maybe I’ll just have some of that potato salad over there.