Seasonal variation in body composition and morphology of adult muskrats in central Saskatchewan, Canada



We quantified seasonal variation in body composition and morphology of adult muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) inhabiting freshwater marsh environments in central Saskatchewan, Canada. The study areas were characterized by long and cold winters extending over six months during which muskrats were restricted to foraging under ice. A total of 162 adult muskrats were collected during nine sampling periods across the year. The large accumulation of fat reserves (16% of body mass) during winter and the concurrent decline in protein mass suggested a reduced maintenance requirement associated with the presence of energy-rich food resources. Dietary fibre content increased significantly during mid-summer and was manifested by changes in gut morphology. Mobilization of fat reserves during summer months by both sexes reflected high energetic demands for reproduction. Males depleted fat reserves soon after spring break-up, while near-exhaustion of fat reserves in females occurred 4–6 weeks later, during lactation. Pregnant females contained significantly greater fat and protein reserves compared to non-pregnant and lactating females. The dynamics of body reserves in muskrats should be viewed as an integral part of the sex-specific life-history traits of this important herbivore species of marsh environments.