The Muskrat – Ondatra zibethicus – is the only one of its kind.
It is a largish semi-aquatic rodent, native to North America, and most commonly found in wetlands. It is not a real rat – just a big rodent, kind of like a Beaver – and there are no other animals in its genus. Its old name was Musquash, which probably comes from the Abenaki word moskwas, but because it marks its territory with a musky odour it was sometimes called a Musk-Beaver, and then – because it has a tail more like a Rat’s – it came to be called Muskrat. It’s Latin name – Ondatra – comes from its name in the Huron language, Ondathra. That’s a lot of name for a very unassuming animal!
There’s a reason for this, though. The Muskrat, as a source of fur, was incredibly important to the economy of the native peoples of North America. It was such an important animal for them that several Native American creation myths give it credit for creating the world. The story goes that after a great flood, when there was nothing but water in every direction, the Muskrat swam down very far, and came back up with a paw-ful of dirt, which Trickster made into new land for all the creatures of the world to live on.
This Muskrat is one of a pair that I saw on the Leslie Street Spit. They came up from under the ice and spent a while grooming. They must be very hardy swimmers – the temperature was several degrees below freezing!