The New Student's Reference Work/Muskrat
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Musk′rat or Mus′quash, a water-rat peculiar to North America, found from Labrador to Alaska and south to Louisiana and Arizona. Although adapted to an aquatic life, muskrats spend much time on the shores of the lakes and rivers they inhabit. The animal is the largest of the rat family, being about one foot long without the tail, which is six or eight inches in length. The latter is different from the tail of any other rat, being scaly and flattened from above downward. The fur is a dark, glossy brown above, paler and more silky underneath, is of commercial value; in the present scarcity of fur much is sold as mink and martin; when dyed, as French seal. Muskrats are great divers and swimmers, and resemble the beaver in being clever house-builders. They live in burrows in the bank, with one or more entrances under water. For winter they build dome-shaped houses of sedges and grasses plastered together with mud. These project above the surface of the water, but the entrances are underneath; here they sleep and bring up their food to eat at leisure. They feed mainly on roots and stems of water-plants. They raise their young in homes high up on the banks, there being two or three litters a season. Otter and mink are among their enemies, and the great horned-owl is a deadly foe. Warning of approaching danger is said to be communicated from one to another by slapping the water with the rubbery tail. The tail is used as rudder and propeller in swimming, and furnishes a “third leg” when the muskrat stands upright on shore, as he has a habit of doing, presenting a most amusing figure when looking the landscape over. The muskrat gets its name from its pronounced odor. The name is also applied to the desman of the Old World and a rat of India. All of these animals have a musky odor. See Stone and Cram: American Animals and Hornaday: American Natural History.