Also known as Coypu, the nutria (sometimes called nutria rat) is a rodent. They average ten pounds and look like a cross between a beaver and a rat. They have large rear webbed feet, which makes them good swimmers. They are native to Argentina, but found their way to the states in the 1930s.
They are cute, but I don't think they would make good pets because those large front teeth are three inches long and can penetrate your hand very quickly.
My dad, who was a trapper in the 1940s, said he was trapping for beaver when he caught one of these for the first time. They were rare in Louisiana back then, and their thick hides were worth a "pretty penny." By the 1960's they had become so plentiful in the state, the wetlands began to suffer under their ravenous appetite and wasteful eating habits, along with their high rate of breeding.
Nutria have large incisors that are yellow to orange-red on the outer surface. (Photo from U.S. Geological Survey.)
How did they get so plentiful so fast?
Science Daily says: The biology of the nutria species allows it to reproduce at rapid speed, making it an unwieldy animal to control if released into the wild. A female nutria averages about five young per litter, but can birth as many as 13 at a time. A female can breed again within two days after giving birth, meaning one nutria can have up to three litters per year.
To get a sense of their productivity, 20 nutria brought to Louisiana in the 1930s bred an estimated 20 million animals within two decades, according to a wildlife group in Maryland that tracks nutria data, quoted in a recent report by Louisiana journalist Chris Kirkham.
Although nutria were brought to all parts of the country, said Kirkham's report , warm weather in Louisiana has boosted their numbers. Already under pressure from saltwater intrusion, the marshes also have to deal with the nutria and their voracious appetite for the vital marsh roots that keep wetlands intact.
Did Mr. McIlhenny of Tabasco fame bring them to Louisiana?
For many years, Tabasco sauce magnate E.A. McIlhenny received most of the blame for introducing the rodents from South America to Avery Island in the 1930s. McIlhenny wanted to expand the fur trade in Louisiana at that time, so he brought nutria from South America to his home on Avery Island, the story went. But a hurricane blew down the nutria pen, releasing them into the wild.
The myth held for decades, sometimes perpetuated by family members themselves. Five years ago, a historian hired by the family found records that McIlhenny actually bought the nutria from a St. Bernard Parish fur dealer in 1938. He did eventually set the nutria loose, but not because of hurricane damage, said McIlhenny historian and curator Shane Bernard, quoted in reporter Kirkham's recent newspaper interview.
"I'm confident that all the myth has been stripped away," he said. "Anybody who knows oral history or folklore knows how stories can change when they're passed down from one generation to the next."
Nutria rat in the water eating. (Credit: iStockphoto/Per Jørgensen)
What do they sound like?
It is said that after Hurricane Audrey, in 1957, during which many young children were swept away into the marshlands, the cries of the nutria were mistaken for lost babies, crying "mom."
In my book, The Legend of Ghost Dog Island, set in Louisiana in the 1950s, there is mention of the eerie sounds these animals make.
What are the Louisiana People doing to save the Marshes from this over-abundant critter?
Check out Nutria Documentary.