World Rat/Muskrats Day is April 4th

Feature above is in honour of Magawa a trained rat in Cambodia that became the first rodent to be awarded a gold medal for lifesaving.

By Elizabeth Trickey

BEN, US poster art, 1972

When I think of rats, I think of Ben.  That’s because I have the song on my iPod.  It’s a beautiful, gentle song about friendship, being able to count on someone else, and the feeling that someone cares about you.  The song comes from the film “Ben” which is a story about a lonely, sick boy who befriends a rat.  And that’s where the warm and fuzzies stop.  The sweetness of the music is at great odds with this horror flick.  And that probably sums up the feelings that most people have about rats.

These furry little rodents can be quite cute with their beady eyes, round ears, and whiskered faces.  Many people keep them as pets.  But let’s discuss the 2 common, wild ones that we have in Ontario.  The Roof Rat, which is often called a Black or House rat, is 7-9” long with a hairless tail that is even longer than its body.  Average weight is less than half a pound.  They are agile climbers that like the city life, especially towns along the coast.  They like to live in upper structures, so tend to call your attic home.  Their favourite food is moist fruits and they only eat about half an ounce per day.  For those of you who would prefer not to be around any wild rats, you will be dismayed to read about their breeding.  Rattus rattus (its scientific name) have 3-6 litters per year with 5-12 in each litter.  I’ll do the math for you – that’s a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 72 for every female rat.  And the babies can start breeding on their own at 3-4 months of age.  Now that’s a heck of a lot of rats!

ROOF RAT PHOTOS

The second species is the Norway rat which is commonly referred to as a Brown rat or, not so commonly, Rattus norvegicus.  These ones are even bigger than the Roof rat, being over a foot long and weighing in at a pound.  This rodent isn’t so much a climber, instead preferring to burrow, especially where it is damp.  Their breeding habits are similar to their cousin’s, though the offspring are able to breed before the age of 3 months.  Brown rats eat twice as much as Black rats, and enjoy scavenging from human leftovers, with cereal and greasy meats favoured over fruit.

NORWAY RAT PHOTOS

And, being a rehabber who does not work with those types of rats, I am going to throw in information about our cute, chubby muskrat, a rodent within the same superfamily as the rattus above.  More information about this little guy later….

Rats are nocturnal, and when these furry rodents gather together at night for rattus events, they are referred to as a “mischief”.  And they sure do get into mischief!  Wires bitten through, their tunnels can collapse man-made structures, and they do carry a host of diseases.  The 2 species here in Ontario are not indigenous to Canada, but were stowaways on ships coming from Asia.  The rats, being omnivores, devoured plants, reptiles, birds, small mammals, you name it.  Many species became extinct, especially those found on islands.  And it was humans who brought them to North America.

Interestingly, there are some areas that are rat-free due to special efforts to get rid of them.  One of those places?  Alberta!  Because rats sailed into North America at the eastern side, it took quite a few years for the little rodents to hitchhike their way west.  And the Alberta government, being forewarned, was waiting for them!  All along the border of Saskatchewan they were met with explosives, bulldozers, and poisons to stop the rat advance.  Alberta still aggressively patrols its border, with only 10 rats each year being killed.

So what are rats good for?  Well, like every animal on Earth, they serve a purpose.   Rats are scavengers that eat carrion (dead animals) as well as weeds and insects.  In turn, they are prey for larger predators, including humans who, in some places of the world, regularly eat them.  They improve soil conditions by aerating it through all their digging of tunnels.  And let’s not forget that many of our medical advancements are due to the sacrifice of rats in the lab.  Estimates of how many rats are used in labs, every year, are around 35 million. 

Because of their keen sense of smell and ability to be trained, rats have aided humans in several endeavours.  One is the ability to sniff out landmines.  Just last year Magawa, a trained rat in Cambodia, became the first rodent to be awarded a gold medal for lifesaving, helping to make communities safer for the families that live there.  Over a 4 year period, this brave rat sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 other explosive devices.

And if you think that’s amazing, African rats are trained to sniff out tuberculosis in children and they are actually more accurate than the lab tests!

Roof Rat in Paris

Mostly rats have a very negative reputation – the spread of the plague, a 4 letter word used when people are upset, a term to refer to an immoral person, a name used for someone who betrays another.  It certainly doesn’t help when these animals are depicted in literary fiction and horror films as the great villains, like in the Pied Piper of Hamlin or Ben.  Yes, there have been a few films that show another side to the rat but I’m afraid the damage has been done.  And it certainly didn’t help to have “The Year of Rat” in 2020, the year of Covid.  And, no, the rat was not responsible!

Some facts that people should know about our rattus friends are that they are social animals that demonstrate great empathy for their brothers.  Research has shown that they sense distress in other rats and go to the rescue, even if it means they don’t get a treat.  They also have so much in common with humans that researchers choose to use them 95% of the time over other animals for medical research.  So the next time you curse a rat, remember that they are partly responsible for your ability to get medical help for what ails you.

“Ben, most people would turn you away
I don’t listen to a word they say
They don’t see you as I do
I wish they would try to
I’m sure they’d think again
If they had a friend like Ben”

Muskrat Love by Michael Q. Powell

Now let’s look at the muskrat, a rodent that remains active all year round and lives a semi-aquatic life, all through North America, except the Arctic.  Being a cousin of rattus, they look very similar, only bigger.  They also have a famous song dedicated to them – “Muskrat Love” about 2 muskrats, Sammy and Susie, dancing the night away.  How sweet…..

A muskrat is closer in habitat and characteristics to the beaver than it is to the rattus, though they are all very close cousins in the rodent order.  As much as the muskrat is similar to the beaver, it doesn’t build dams and it can be somewhat of an interloper.  Usually, it will build its own lodge out of sticks, reeds and bulrushes, but sometimes it just moves in with a beaver colony, just like that cousin from out-of-town who drops by and never leaves.  The beavers will tolerate its presence, and try to look at the silver lining of this unwanted guest – they will look out each other when it comes to predators.

Muskrats have chubby bodies, being around a foot and a half long which includes their tails, and weighing about 3 pounds.  They are covered in brown, waterproof fur except for their tails and feet.  Their tails are mostly rounded with flattened sides, resembling boat rudders.  Instead of having large, webbed hind feet for swimming like beavers, their toes have a fringe of hair that aid in paddling.  The front paws are much smaller and made for digging, building, and eating.

Another difference with muskrats is that although they do build lodges, they will also burrow into the sides of pond banks.  The entrance is underwater for safety from predators, while their living quarters are dug upwards into the bank so they can have dry nesting chambers.  Unlike the beaver who creates several rooms for different purposes, this rodent usually only has a 1 room apartment.

 

 

Illustration of Muskrat burrow with den site by U.S. Dept of Agriculture

 

Muskrat Push Up by Elizabeth Trickey

As winter approaches, a muskrat waits for the ice in its habitat to freeze up, and once this happens, it creates a “push-up”.  You see, a muskrat doesn’t store food underwater near its lodge like a beaver does.  Instead it builds a “push-up” by chewing a hole in the ice and then putting twigs, leaves, and mud on top of the hole, making a mini lodge just big enough for itself.  These are situated a distance away from the main lodge so when the muskrat is out looking for dinner, it has a safe and convenient place where it can stop to eat its meal.  Sort of like the “enroute” stations we have on our highways!

The diet of a muskrat includes vegetation as well as other small aquatic animals such as fish, clams, snails, and frogs.  The aquatic plants it eats are very tough and woody, so it has to have very sharp teeth, which grow constantly due to being worn down by chewing.  These teeth are on the outside of its cheeks so that it is able to close its lips while chewing underwater.  This rodent uses its sharp teeth as its primary defence against predators. 

Muskrats are not very active through the cold months.  All they really take time to do is eat.  And probably idle away the hours, excitedly thinking about the upcoming breeding season!  They are promiscuous little devils, unlike their beaver cousins that mate for life and remain a close family unit.  With mating beginning in March, females have 2, and sometimes 3, litters starting in April, each just a couple of months apart.  There can be 5-10 little ones born at a time, furless, blind, and needing constant care.  But they do grow quickly, being weaned at just 3-4 weeks old (gotta be out of there before the next batch arrives in a few weeks!).  By 6 weeks old, the young rodents are off on their own, totally independent.

The younger muskrats are the ones that usually fall prey to other animals.  If unable to find escape from predators, they will turn and viciously defend themselves with their sharp teeth.  Animals such as mink, snapping turtles, northern pike, wolverines, raccoons, lynx, and badgers feed on muskrats.  And let’s not forget the most prolific predator – humans, who hunt them not so much for food, but for their fur.  This species is the most sought after animal by trappers, therefore conservation efforts have focussed on preserving muskrats by limiting kills and improving their habitat.  Due to these efforts, the muskrat population and its future, is in good shape.

Muskrats do have an interesting fluctuation in their numbers.  It seems that every 7-10 years, their population is extremely low, and although it could be that they have been over-hunted, scientists think there might be a genetic cause.  They believe that as muskrats age, their health deteriorates, including the ability to reproduce.  Average lifespan is about 3 years.  Over a year or two, populations go back up to what they were before.

All of nature’s animals have a significant job on Earth.  Sometimes these animals frighten us due to their size and ferocity, other times we are scared due to the diseases we may catch from them.  Many times it is a lack of understanding of different species, as well as just not appreciating their very important role in our world.  Sure, wild rats gross a lot of people out, and we do need to be careful around them.  However, they are necessary and, in fact, helpful to humanity.  So let’s all celebrate them on their special day this April 4th.  And did you know that World Rat Day shares this special date with another notable occasion, “Tell a Lie Day”?  Mmmmm, what can I tell you….?