Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Nutria

What is a nutria anyway?

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."
(Science Daily)

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.


Anonymous said...

We have those delightful critters in Bordeaux too. And I mean in town, not in the countryside. I posted some of my pictures of them on my blog. People think the babies are cute and feed them. Personally they give me the creeps. Those big orange teeth! Urrk!

Rita Monette, Writer said...

Whoah Jane, in town? That is just plain creepy. The first time I knew of them as a kid (a long time ago)was when I found a skull, and those long orange teeth were still intact. My dad told me what it was and I never forgot it!

Linda Benson said...

Oh gosh, Rita. We had them in Oregon, too, when we lived near a canal. They were quite fierce and used to fight at night. Ugh, I did not like them at all!

Sharon Ledwith said...

I've personally never seen or heard of them. No muskrat love for them, they are pretty creepy looking with those long teeth! Now beavers I can relate to! Thanks for more of your Louisiana lore, Rita! Love it!

Margaret said...

They're eaten in some South American countries, as I recall. What an excellent food source. (Not that I'd want to eat them.)

I bet they taste like chicken. :)

Rita Monette, Writer said...

I've heard pork, Margaret. haha. I wouldn't want to eat them either. It IS a rat after all.

Rita Monette, Writer said...

Wow, Linda, Oregon? I didn't realize they'd made it that far north. Adventurous little critters, aren't they?

Unknown said...

They can breed again 2 days after giving birth ... to a litter of 13??!!! Wow. Love your fascinating insights, Rita.

Vonnie said...

Rita, as ever, a totally terrific blog post. Hope that somewhere there's a scientist working on a way of restricting the breeding of the nutria. (Can see in my mind's eye, hundreds of masters degree biologists with waders up to their armpits easing through the shallows armed with chocolate flavored contraceptive pills calling "Here, Nutri! Come and get the nice yum yums).

Rita Monette, Writer said...

Thanks Sara. Yes their breeding habits are what is getting them into trouble. I think I read an article where they are working on just that, Vonnie. Something natural that makes them not want to breed (probably not chocolate though). I didn't read the scientific part too closely, but I guess it's better than having to shoot them. :-(