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Louisiana’s Giant, Terrifying Swamp Rats Set To Invade Rest of America, Thanks To Climate Change

Do these rodents look cute to you? Because they’re actually destroying the environment with their voracious appetite and crazy teeth. And they’re coming for you.

Louisiana’s Giant, Terrifying Swamp Rats Set To Invade Rest of America, Thanks To Climate Change
Image: Coypu via Wikipedia

Not all species are screwed by climate change. Thanks to warmer North American winters, some animals, like Louisiana’s infamous, tangerine-toothed, invasive swamp rat–or nutria, as they’re called in polite company–could find new places to terrorize across America.

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We’re not just being mean speciesists. Nutria are like the kudzu vine of rodents, and have proliferated so rapidly across Louisiana that, since 2005, the state has offered $5 for each nutria tail turned into its Nutria Control Program. The water rats were first brought to the United States in the late 19th century from South America, but some eventually escaped the farms where they were bred for their fur. The rest of their American history plays out like a traditional campus myth of escaped research animals on the campus green. The nutria were fruitful, multiplied, and became quite comfortable destroying sugar cane crops, rice fields, and wetland ecosystems at an alarming frequency. And according to new research from the United States Geological Survey, they’re just going to keep on coming.

The USGS estimates that nutria’s taste for wrecking wetland infrastructure and encouraging erosion currently affects some 100,000 miles of coastal territory. And in 40 years, it’s quite likely that the species could head north.

From the Daily Climate:

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey found that during a recent string of mild winters, nutria populations expanded northward in the United States. Left uncontrolled, that trend could continue over the next 40 years, the data show. Climate change models predict milder winter temperatures across the country, and the new study suggests that could lead to nutria extending their range big time in the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Valley and the Eastern Seaboard.

“In the year 2050 we show that almost all of the states are suitable for nutria,” said study author Catherine Jarnevich, a research ecologist with the USGS. The research, not yet published, was presented at the recent meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis.

In 1998, Congress approved a $2.9 million research program to figure out the best way to kill nutria, and Louisiana has invited celebrity chefs to teach nutria-centered recipes over the past two decades. Some figure that the best way to keep nutria under control is to breed more giant alligators, while others are considering reviving the passé tradition of wearing nutria fur.

Earlier this year, three filmmakers successfully Kickstarted a documentary about nutria. In order to raise funds for “Rodents of Unusual Size,” Jeff Springer, Quinn Costello, and Chris Meltzer taste-tested a variety of nutria products, including snack sticks, jambalaya, and water rat Cajun sausage.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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