Muskrat bones: Top row: left and right mandibles, Middle row: right scapula, right and left humeri, right and left femurs, two tibio-fibulas, Bottom row: caudal (tail) vertebrae
Muskrat bones: Top row: left and right mandibles, Middle row: right scapula, right and left humeri, right and left femurs, two tibio-fibulas, Bottom row: caudal (tail) vertebrae

Muskrats (Ondatra zibethica) are common throughout North American wetlands, thriving in a wide variety of climates and different aquatic habitats across the United States and Canada. While they feature in several Native American creation myths, muskrats were unfamiliar to the English colonists when they arrived in Virginia in 1607. The Algonquian (possibly Powhatan) word for muskrats, muscascus, describes their red color, but the English also noted the animals’ strong musky odor.

A 17th century description of Virginian fauna by Mr. John Clayton includes the following: “Muskrats, in all things shaped like our Water-Rats, only something larger . . . only having a curious musky Scent: I kept one for a certain time in a wooden Chest; two Days before it died it was extraordinary odoriferous, and scented the Room very much; but the Day that it died, and a Day after the Scent was very small, yet afterwards the Skin was very fragrant . . . They build Houses as Beavers do, in the Marshes and Swamps by the Water-sides, with two or three ways into them, and they are finely daubed within. I pulled one in pieces purposely to see the Contrivance: There were three different Lodging-Rooms, very neat, one higher than another, as I conceive purposely made for Retirement when the Water rises higher than ordinary; they are considerably large, having much Trash and Lumber to make their Houses withal; I suppose they live mostly on Fish.”

Strongly scented animal products such as musk, castor, and civet were used in England for perfumery and medicinal purposes but similar uses for muskrat excretions never seem to have developed. Instead, muskrats were widely trapped for their fur, which is dark brown in color, short, and dense, with two layers to insulate against cold water. As with many wild species, muskrats were eaten by the colonists although they are not frequently hunted for food today. Their presence at Jamestown and use as a food source can clearly be seen in the faunal assemblages from several early Fort period contexts such as the First Well and Powder Magazine, as well as later features like the East Bulwark. Muskrats can still be spotted along the James River and surrounding waterways and wetlands today.

Muskrats are most closely related to voles (not rats!) but they share many similarities with beavers. Unlike this larger cousin however, muskrat population suffered much less devastating effects from overhunting and more recent environmental concern and habitat destruction. Muskrats produce numerous offspring several times a year, including during the winter in warm enough climates. They are also quite successful at adapting to disturbed ecosystems, building their burrows in manmade river embankments as well as wild marshlands. This resiliency has made muskrats something of a pest in some regions of North America, and they quickly became an invasive species in Europe after the introduction of a few animals in the early 20th century. The English Parliament passed its first legislation to combat a nonnative invasive species in the 1930s, after an introduced muskrat population began spreading across the island and quickly became a nuisance. The long list of “ravages” presented by Earl De La Warr, parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and relative of Jamestown’s first Governor, was somewhat overstated but effectively motivational. England was surprisingly successful at eradicating muskrats, unlike mainland Europe where invasive populations remain widespread.


Good News from Virginia, 1613:

A Letter from Mr. John Clayton to the Royal Society, May 12, 1688:

Coates, Peter. “The Muskrat’s New Frontier: The Rise and Fall of an American Animal Empire in Britain.” Environmental History 2020 25:2, 207-236.