Why “Muskrat”?

A muskrat (Ondatra zibethica) is not a rat, even though it resembles a rat. Rather this rodent is more closely related to field mice, moles and lemmings than rats. Nor is it closely related to a beaver, although it lives a semiaquatic lifestyle and constructs homes with underwater entrances.

Etymological references suggest the name comes from the Algonquian word “muscascus” which means “it is red”, a reference to the coloration of the animal. Alternately, the common name may derive from the archaic English word for this rodent, “musquash”.

A less academic theory as to the etymology of the name muskrat suggests that “musk” refers to the secretions of the musk glands (also called anal glands), two glands located at the base of the tail. The musky-smelling secretions are used for communication, such as marking territory or advertising sexual availability. This mammal does look a lot like a rat.

The genus name, Odatra, derives via French from the Huron word for this animal, ondathra. The specific designation, zibethicus, means “musky”.

Leonard and I watched this muskrat on Hat Creek between the hydroelectric plant and Baum Lake (Shasta County CA).

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