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Bellwether for a drying delta

Picture of a muskrat

Muskrats are found from northern Mexico to northern Alaska, and most of northern Canada.

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Jul 6 2021

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Research, Faculty

The muskrat, a stocky brown rodent the size of a Chihuahua – with a tail like a mouse, teeth like a beaver and an exceptional ability to bounce back from rapid die-offs – has lived for thousands of years in one of Earth’s largest freshwater deltas, in northeastern Alberta, Canada.

New research focused on muskrat population dynamics in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, published June 24 in Communications Biology, demonstrates the vulnerability of even this most protected landscape to human-driven changes to water systems and the global climate.

“A little muskrat in the middle of this northern part of Canada is an indicator of human impacts at the local, regional and global level,” said Stanford University environmental biologist Elizabeth Hadly, co-principal investigator of the study. “Climate change and dams have changed the ability of this exemplar species – and many plants, animals and people who depend on the same ecosystem – to thrive in this large area.”

Because muskrat behavior and dispersal are so closely linked to freshwater distribution and abundance, their genetic data offers hard evidence for how changes in the aquatic environment have affected a real population over time. “They’re a bit of a canary in a coal mine,” said Hadly, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology and a senior fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.