Muskrat swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch. Photo by Erik Baard.
After a long day of producing a public paddle event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, HarborLAB volunteers were treated to the sight of a new (or at least newly sighted) neighbor at our Newtown Creek launch. A muskrat!
We believe this creature hasn’t been verifiably reported in the Newtown Creek in living memory. The Newtown Creek’s chief chronicler and photographer, Mitch Waxman, says there have been murmurs about it for over a year.
For urbanites like us, a muskrat conjures images of fur trappers and musk collectors from centuries past. This indigenous, semi-aquatic burrowing rodent is ubiquitous over much of North America. Indeed, Algonquin and other Native American creation stories credit the muskrat with swimming to the primordial ocean floor to scoop up the mud that formed the lands of the world. This animal is also depicted as the mother of humanity in some tales, and often as an auspicious symbol promising wealth. Perhaps HarborLAB has found a mascot?
Surprised to see this critter in the Newtown Creek? We were too, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been; muskrats survive in sulfurous streams polluted by coal plants, where frogs and fish have been wiped out. These herbivores (they’ll only occasionally eat small amphibians, invertebrates, and shellfish) thrive in wetlands, but have found niches in more challenging areas disrupted by development. One benefit of muskrats is that they eat invasive phragmites reeds, which choke out native plants in fresh and brackish waters. The fate of muskrats (locally breeding or arriving) factored into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study on the possible scope of industrial damage to the Newtown Creek’s natural resources. No doubt many muskrats once inhabited this waterway, but not in living memory. A study for the Environmental Protection Agency done by HarborLAB sponsor AECOM posited that muskrats might use the creek:
“Birds are likely to be the principal aquatic-dependent wildlife species that occur in and around the Study Area, although some mammals such as muskrats may use the area. Members of various avian feeding guilds may, at one time or another, also be present in the Study Area.” — Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study Work Plan Newtown Creek (AECOM Environment)
This muskrat might be living in a burrow dug into the soft slope where the bulkhead has disintegrated on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek. Muskrats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular, so they’re not easy to spot. We have few muskrat predators here, though these rodents (especially their young) might still find themselves on the menu for cats, raptors, some large fish, and turtles.
Muskrats prefer slow-moving waterways, but can transit on swifter courses like the East River. They aren’t likely to drown in strong currents because they can hold their breath for up to 17 minutes!
We’re not sure what this neighbor was up to. It swam against a mild but burgeoning flood tidal current, using its distinctive vertically-flat tail as a flagellum to propel it toward the white sun trail of late afternoon. Its partially webbed hind feet are a secondary means of swimming. What we do know is that it looked so serious about its agenda, which made it look even more painfully cute.
“It’s serious stuff, being an urban muskrat,” remarked Waxman.
It may have been seeking new territory, for mating advantage or because it belonged to a population that had consumed its food sources. Muskrat populations often boom and bust with available edible plants. Sadly, most muskrats don’t live more than a year.
Where we are, toward the Newtown Creek mouth, water quality is better than inland reaches. This is because ocean water flowing through the East River strait swirls into the creek west of the Pulaski Bridge. Dissolved oxygen levels are higher than the creek average, allowing for more fish and invertebrates and therefore a heartier ecosystem. Also, we’ve had a dry spell, so pipes combining storm water with household sewage haven’t overflowed into the creek recently. That said, however, the sediment pollutants that warrant U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation remain a carcinogenic hazard for mammals feeding in the creek or having repeated exposure. Muskrats have been shown to concentrate, or bioaccumulate, metals in their tissues.
As for protecting the human mammal, HarborLAB uses canoes on the creek to reduce water contact greatly. Our sit-on-top kayaks are exclusively for harbor voyages. We never have children paddle from the Newtown Creek site or contaminated nearby sites like Anable Basin and Hallets Cove. We make the effort to host children’s paddling in cleaner regional waters, while advocating for local cleanups.
HarborLAB hopes this little guy finds a healthier habitat to call home soon. But for one afternoon, we enjoyed “Muskrat Love.”