Water Rat (Hydromys chrysogaster)

Rats! The name tends to evoke revulsion in many people, even those who claim to have a 'love' of wildlife. It's understandable I suppose as in the fourteenth century rats are accused of carrying the zoonotic Bubonic plague that via fleas killed between 30% to 60% of the population of Europe [around 25 million] ...

We tend to remember such things.

Even little old isolated Australia hadn't escape unscathed:

There were 12 major plague outbreaks in Australia between 1900 and 1925 as ships imported wave after wave of infection. Government health archives record 1371 and 535 deaths. Sydney was hit hardest, but the disease also spread to North Queensland while more sporadic cases were documented in Melbourne, Adelaide and Fremantle. ^

Despite this and strangely, we lead the world in 'anti-vaxxer' weirdos.

Go figure right?.

Still today, global reports of the Bubonic plague crop up. However, we really need to keep things in perspective here and for the most part native rodents don't pose any significant risk to human health.

Take this little guy for example it's one of Australia's largest rodents - the Water Rat. He was trapped [humanely] at Jo's work and she brought him home so we could find a suitable release site that night. I've gotta tell you, I was mightily impressed by this little animal.

This species is often confused with platypus when seen swimming on the surface of the water and grow to a length of over 300mm with a tail length of around 270mm - that makes a total length of over half a meter! ... that's pretty damned impressive. There are also reports of them weighing in at over a kilogramme. Not bad for a rodent.

They are also often confused with the infamous White Tailed rat due to the white pigment of the last third of their tail. However, identification is relatively straight forward as the white-tailed rat has little to no fur on it's tail.

Hydromys chrysogaster

Vermin? I think not.

The thing that really got my attention though was this little animals vocal repertoire. From plaintive keening to snorts and pig like grunts he wasn't backwards about letting me know his emotional state at any one time and made it quite clear that he was in no mood to be trifled with. Of course, this was all a fear response and a reasonable reaction to having been trapped. From my observations he was actually very timid and not an animal to be loathed or reviled at all.

As a native animal they are protected, although poisoning and other culling methods do seem to be tacitly condoned by the powers that be as most people have little or no tolerance for such animals due to the rodent proclivity for chewing through power cables and helping themselves to food/grain stores.

However, it should be noted that many rodents also help spread seeds that are vital to the regeneration of native plants. So you know, perhaps in this enlightened age we could be a little more tolerant and a damn sight more humane eh?.

During the depression in the 1930s, a ban was placed on the import of furred skins (mostly American Muskrat). The Water-rat was seen as a perfect substitute and the price of a Water-rat pelt increased from four shillings in 1931 to 10 shillings in 1941. The species was heavily hunted during this time until protective legislation was introduced. Populations seem to have made a recovery.

The main threats to the Water-rat today are habitat alteration as a result of flood mitigation and swamp drainage, and predation by introduced animals such as cats and foxes. ^source


  1. Naive question: Since they are not called Rattus something, are they rodents or another of your marsupials filling that niche? He is quite amazing.

    1. Hi Dave, no mate that's not naive - the fact is that rodents have a plethora of species and sub-species, not all in the European rat family. You make an excellent point though, as rodents seem to be relatively recent arrivals to Australia and by all accounts have thrived - there is some evidence that they have indeed 'evolved' to exploit food resources that were otherwise under-utilised by other native animals esp the marsupials.

      This one though is indeed a rodent and shouldn't be confused with introduced species that are detrimental to both human health and native eco-systems in Australia such as the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) or the Black Rat (Rattus rattus).

      Cheers for the comment.

  2. Paul, thanks for the information. I have added your site to the blogroll at http://wildfidalgo.blogspot.com
    Looking forward to future posts.

  3. Thanks Dave, I appreciate that - added your excellent blog also.

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