By MDC | January 1, 2024
From Xplor: January/February 2024

Meet Sam. Sam is a muskrat. He lives in a marsh. He shapes how the marsh looks — like a furry architect. Sam, you might say, is a marshchitect.

Marsh Mower

Nibble, nibble, num, num, num. Sam loves to eat the roots and stems of cattails and bulrushes. Bite by bite, he mows down patches of plants across the marsh. This creates areas of open water where fish, frogs, and turtles can swim, herons can wade, and ducks can land. Though Sam is mostly a vegetarian, he sometimes snacks on small animals like mussels, crayfish, and frogs.

Life on the Soggy Side

Sam is perfectly suited for his soggy life. His dense, waterproof fur acts like a wetsuit to keep him warm and dry. His webbed hind paws propel him through the water better than a pair of swim fins. And while you would need an air tank to stay underwater for 15 minutes, Sam can do it just by holding his breath.

Eaten Out of House and Home

For his home, Sam has piled thousands of cattails into a 4-foot-high heap in the middle of the marsh. To keep unwanted visitors away, the front door of the house is hidden safely underwater. A narrow tunnel climbs from the doorway to a small bedroom above the water’s surface in the center of the mound. Damp, 1-foot-thick walls keep the inside cool in summer and warm in winter. Not only is the mound a cozy bedroom, it’s also a well-stocked pantry. If food gets scarce, Sam can eat the walls of his house.

Muskrat on the Menu

Uh-oh! In the nick of time, Sam spots a mink slinking through the cattails. Sploosh! He leaps into the water, churning his hind paws like a boat motor. The mink barrels in after him, but the hungry hunter is no match for a motivated muskrat. Cleaving the water at 3 miles per hour, Sam quickly leaves the slower-swimming mink in his wake. Mink are Sam’s greatest foes, but coyotes, owls, and snapping turtles all have muskrats on their menus.

Muskrat Love

In early spring, while exploring part of the marsh he’d never explored before, Sam meets a fellow muskrat named Suzie. They hit it off swimmingly and quickly become a couple. Without a second thought, Sam moves to Suzie’s side of the marsh, and the two turn to the business of starting a family.

Mini Marshchitects

A month later, Suzie gives birth to six squeaky babies. The newborns are blind, hairless, and helpless. Sam stays nearby, but Suzie does all the work of raising the new family. She feeds the youngsters milk, and they grow quickly. In a week, they’re covered with fur. In two weeks, their eyes open. In three weeks, they can swim and dive. And in four weeks, they quit drinking milk and can fend for themselves.

Food Fight!

When the marsh teems with plants, Sam and Suzie pay little attention to their muskrat neighbors. After all, there’s plenty of food to go around. But as summer starts to sizzle, and the marsh dries up, clashes over cattails break out. Don’t let Sam or Suzie’s chubby appearance fool you! Muskrats are fierce fighters. They squeal and snarl and use their half-inch-long, razor-sharp teeth to slash at enemies. Fights rarely end in serious injury, but losers get banished from their stash of cattails.

The Future Looks Furry

By fall, Suzie has raised three litters of babies. Whew! Life at the bottom of the food chain isn’t easy, however, and only a third of the youngsters have survived. On the bright side, summer storms have turned the marsh into a paradise once again. It’s overgrowing with cattails and in desperate need of a few more marshchitects to trim it back into shape. Luckily, Sam and Suzie’s family knows just what to do.

Also In This Issue

Red Shouldered Hawk

Make this mini field guide to learn about Missouri’s birds of prey

This Issue's Staff

Artist – Matt Byrde
Photographer – Noppadol Paothong
Photographer – David Stonner
Designer – Marci Porter
Designer – Les Fortenberry
Art Director – Cliff White
Editor – Matt Seek
Subscriptions – Marcia Hale
Magazine Manager – Stephanie Thurber