7 Facts About Nutria, the Invasive Rodents Taking Over Louisiana

Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film
Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film

Rodents are known for being pests, but the nutria may be the worst of them. The orange-toothed, semi-aquatic rodents from South America, which can grow to be up to 20 pounds, have become invasive species whose territory extends to almost every continent on earth. Along the way, they’ve created environmental catastrophes, destroyed infrastructure and crops, and created millions of dollars in damages. The pesky creatures are the subject of a new documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size. The 71-minute film traces the nutria’s rise in Louisiana and the profound consequences it has had on the ecosystem there. Here are seven facts about the animals we learned from the documentary.

1. THEY’RE NOT FROM AROUND HERE.

Nutria are native to South America, but over the past century or so, they have traveled around the globe. In some places, they’re better known as coypu, from the Spanish word coipú. (In Spanish, the word nutria means otter.)

While Rodents of Unusual Size focuses on a small community in southern Louisiana, nutria pose a significant problem elsewhere, too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fur farmers and trappers brought them to Europe, Asia, and Africa as well as a number of places in North America to raise them for their pelts. (Some U.S. states also imported them as a method of weed control.) Unfortunately, that led to the rise of feral populations that have since ballooned. The Invasive Species Specialist Group has named nutria one of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species.

2. THEY MAKE A LOT OF BABIES.

One of the reasons nutria pose such a big problem as an invasive species is that they multiply rapidly. They reach sexual maturity at only a few months old, can reproduce up to three times a year, and in extreme cases, can have litters of up to 13. Though they typically only live between three and six years in the wild, they’re such prolific breeders that, as one invasive species project notes, even in that short time frame, “the amount of offspring produced is tremendous.”

3. AS AN INVASIVE SPECIES, THEY’RE REALLY BAD FOR THE ECOSYSTEM.

The snout of a nutria on a black background with the words 'Rodents of Unusual Size'

Growing up in Delacroix, an island community just south of New Orleans, “it was a jungle,” lifelong resident Thomas Gonzales explains in the opening minutes of Rodents of Unusual Size. “There was nothing but big oak trees. When I look out now, it looks like a disaster.”

Nutria, which can consume up to 20 percent of their body weight in plant matter and roots each day, eat up the vegetation that holds together wetland soil, causing major erosion. What was once wetland becomes open water, permanently. “All the grass that the muskrats used to eat, they cleaned it like a baseball field,” Gonzales says. “Now it’s all water.”

He’s not exaggerating. While storms, dredging, and other factors have also played a role in the environmental decline of places like Delacroix, between 2001 and 2016, overgrazing nutria contributed to the conversion of almost 26,800 acres of Louisiana marsh to open water, the state estimates. And since marshes serve as important protection against storm surges, that also leads to greater flooding inland.

Nutria also pose problems in other arenas: The animals dig extensive burrow systems that sometimes end up under roads, around bridges, and in canals and levees. They also destroy thousands of dollars worth of crops like sugarcane and rice each year, and do millions of dollars of damage to golf courses.

4. THEY WERE ONCE BIG BUSINESS.

The nutria’s rise to global domination is largely thanks to the fur industry. In Louisiana, for instance, fur farmers brought them up from Argentina to raise for their pelts in the 1930s. Some of those animals either escaped or were released, taking up residence along the Gulf Coast, where they flourished in the swamps and other wetlands. By the 1960s, nutria were the Louisiana fur industry’s biggest commodity, with trappers bringing in more nutria and selling the pelts for more money than any other animal. In the 1970s, nutria trapping brought in 1.9 million pelts per year [PDF]. Unfortunately, the overabundance of nutria meant that supply eventually outstripped demand—which was falling across the fur industry anyway—and prices fell steeply over the next few decades. Trapping nutria was no longer as profitable, so trappers found work elsewhere. And without the fur industry keeping the nutria in check, the animal's populations exploded.

5. PEOPLE STILL DEPEND ON THEM FOR THEIR LIVELIHOODS.

A man with a gun over his shoulder standing in a boat filled with nutria carcases
Thomas Gonzales of Delacroix Island, Louisiana

Now, as the environmental impact of nutria has become more apparent, the state of Louisiana is trying to bring back nutria trapping. In order to incentivize trappers to hunt down nutria, the state has a $5 bounty on nutria tails. During the nutria hunting season, from November to March, the state sets up collection stations where trappers can bring in the tails of nutria they have killed [PDF]. They get a check in the mail based on the number of tails they bring in, and can use the carcasses however they want—whether that’s selling them for their fur or meat or discarding them. (Sometimes fur dealers are even on hand at collection stations.) Since the program first began in 2002, it has resulted in the removal of 5 million nutria.

6. WEARING THEIR FUR IS CONSIDERED ETHICAL.

Nutria were originally valued for their pelts, and nutria fur may be making a comeback. In most of the world, killing nutria does a service to the environment, making the rodents one of the most ethical sources of fur around.

“Traditionally, the stigma of fur is that people don’t feel comfortable killing animals to adorn themselves,” fashion designer Cree McCree explains in the film. “But the thing with the nutria is that they’re being killed anyway, and they’re throwing these beautiful furs away. It seemed like a colossal waste.” So McCree founded Righteous Fur, a collective of fashion designers who incorporate nutria fur into their designs, making everything from coats and hats to bow ties. Since most faux fur is made of polyester or other plastics, wearing nutria might actually be more sustainable than sporting fake fur.

7. YOU CAN—AND SHOULD—EAT THEM.

A woman sits at a table covered in nutria pelts.
Cree McCree, founder of Righteous Furs

While people may be turned off by the idea of eating a giant rodent with big orange teeth, nutria actually make a pretty good addition to the dinner table, according to chefs and hunters. “If you approach it with an open mind, you’ll find it doesn’t have a really bad, swampy taste,” award-winning New Orleans chef Susan Spicer says in Rodents of Unusual Size. “The nutria flavor is sort of like the zucchini of the animal world. You can kind of make it work with a lot of different kinds of flavors.”

The meat is lean, and, unlike with other meats, you don’t have to worry about feeling bad that a cute critter died for your dinner. In fact, you’re doing the environment a service. And in the right hands, nutria is reportedly delicious. Some hunters in the film even say it’s preferable to steak.

Rodents of an Unusual Size makes its Los Angeles debut on September 14. To find a screening near you, check out the film’s website.

All images courtesy Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film

15 Animal Names That Can Be Used As Verbs

iStock.com/fotojagodka
iStock.com/fotojagodka

People can go fishing, rabbit on incessantly, dog one another, and horse around. But because of their usefulness in completing burdensome work, horse has also been used in (originally naval) slang since the mid-19th century to mean “to work to the point of exhaustion”—or, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “to drive or urge at work unfairly or tyrannically.” But horses aren’t the only animals whose names can be “verbed.” From turtles to tigers, you can drop any one of these 15 creatures into your everyday conversation.

1. Bulldog

No one is entirely sure why bulldogs are called bulldogs, with different theories pointing to everything from their bull-like stature to their bullish faces to the fact that they might once have been bred to bait bulls. Whatever the origin, the bulldog’s strength and its robust, resilient behavior means that you can use its name as a verb meaning “to attack roughly,” or “to wrestle to the ground.”

2. Tiger

A tiger
iStock.com/konmesa

If you tiger, then you walk to and fro, like a tiger pacing in a cage. If you tiger something, then you paint or mark it with contrasting stripes.

3. Spider

Jumping spider
iStock.com/elthar2007

As well as being used simply to mean “to creep” or “to move like a spider,” if you ensnare or entrap something, or else cover it in a cobweb-like pattern, then you spider it.

4. Cat

British shorthair cat with expressive orange eyes
iStock.com/Leesle

Because the cathead is the horizontal beam at the bow of a ship that’s used to raise an anchor, the word cat has a number of nautical uses as a verb, including “to lift an anchor from the water,” “to secure an anchor,” and “to draw an anchor through the water.” But because shooting the cat was 19th century slang for being sick from drinking too much, you can also use cat to mean “to vomit.”

5. Vulture

White-backed vulture
iStock.com/EcoPic

Vultures’ grim feeding habits and their remarkable flying ability have given the word two meanings as a verb in English. Feel free to use it to mean “to eat voraciously” or “to tear at your food,” or else “to descend steadily through the air.”

6. Owl

Owl in flight
iStock.com/WhitcombeRD

Owling (as well as being a short-lived social media craze) was once the name given to the crime of smuggling sheep and wool from England to the continent—a crime so-called because the nefarious “owlers” carried out their crimes at night. That might not be the most useful of words these days of course, so feel free to also use owl to mean “to act wisely, despite not knowing anything.”

7. Shark

It’s easy to presume that the use of shark as a verb to mean “to act like a predator” (which is the same shark as in loanshark, incidentally) derives from the deadly sea creatures. In fact, it might be the opposite: Both meanings of the word shark date back to the late 16th century, but it’s possible that the verb shark is the older of the two. If so, it’s possible that it comes from the earlier word shirk (in the sense of using deceit or trickery to avoid work) or else a northeastern French word, cherquier, which was often used in a phrase that essentially meant “to sponge of others” or “to act as a parasite.” So how did sea-dwelling sharks come to be called sharks? It’s possible the deceitful sharks gave their name to the menacing creatures, or else the two could be completely unrelated—and, thanks to a sea battle off the Yucatan peninsula in 1569, shark could in fact be a Mayan word.

8. Monkey

Chimpanzee looking surprised
iStock.com/photomaru

As well as meaning “to play the fool” or “to behave playfully”—as in “monkeying around”—monkey, like ape, can also be used to mean “to mimic” or “to copy someone’s movements or actions.”

9. Turtle

If a boat “turns turtle,” then it capsizes and flips over, so that it looks like a turtle’s domed shell floating atop the water. Because of that, to turtle something is to turn it upside down.

10. Snail

Burgundy snail
iStock.com/AlexRaths

For obvious reasons, snail has been used to mean “to move slowly” since the late 16th century, but because of the snail’s coiled shell, you can also use snail to mean “to draw or carve a spiral,” or “to roll into a spiral shape.”

11. Porcupine

Porcupine walking
iStock.com/ser-y-star

When your hair stands on end, feel free to say that it porcupined.

12. Canary

Canary birds take their name from the Canary Islands, which, somewhat confusingly, take their name from canis, the Latin word for “dog.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the canary was also the name of an energetic dance inspired by a traditional dance performed by the natives of the Canary Islands. And because of that, you can also use the word canary as a verb meaning “to dance in a lively fashion.”

13. Earwig

Earwig
iStock.com/Mr_Fu

Earwigs are so-called because they were once (thankfully erroneously) thought to crawl inside people’s ears as they slept. Through association with someone whispering clandestinely into someone’s ear, in the late 18th century eavesdroppers and people who seeked to secretly influence others became known as earwiggers—and so to earwig is to do precisely that.

14. Pig

Cute pig leaning on railing of his cot
iStock.com/Fotosmurf03

Pig has been used to mean “to give birth” since as far back as the 15th century in English (a fairly uncomplimentary allusion to a pregnant sow delivering a litter of piglets). But slightly less depreciatively, the living habits of pigs mean that it can also be used to mean “to huddle together,” or else “to live or sleep in crowded or dirty conditions.”

15. Dingo

A dingo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

Because of their stereotypically sneaky behavior, to dingo on someone meant “to let down” or “to betray” them in 1930s Australian slang, while to dingo meant simply “to shirk” or “to back out of something at the last minute.”

This list first ran in 2016.

Photographer's Up-Close Images of Animal Eyes Will Have You Seeing Wildlife in a Whole New Way

A parrot eye
A parrot eye
Suren Manvelyan

Few people ever get close enough to a hippo, hyena, or crocodile to snap a photo of one, let alone get a detailed shot of their eyes. Yet that is exactly what theoretical physicist-turned-photographer Suren Manvelyan, of Armenia, has done. His macro photography series of animal eyes, spotted by My Modern Met, offers a rare look at the animal world, amplified.

Some of Manvelyan's eye photos—like that of the camel, which has three eyelids—look like strange landscapes on some distant, alien planet. The smallest details have been captured in his photos, from the kaleidoscopic irises of the chinchilla and chimpanzee to the shimmery edges of a raven's eye. If the photos weren't labeled, it might be difficult to tell what you were looking at.

"It is very beautiful and astounding," Manvelyan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The surface resembles the surface of other planets, with craters, rivers, and valleys. It looks like something from another world. Every time I photograph the eye, I feel myself traveling through the cosmos."

Manvelyan keeps his photography techniques secret, but he says he sometimes spends an hour with an animal just waiting to capture the right moment. To date, he has photographed both domestic animals (like a husky dog and Siamese cat) as well as exotic ones (including a variety of tropical birds and lizards). Check out some of his shots below, and visit his website to see more photos from this series.

Eye of a caiman lizard
A caiman lizard's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A camel's eye
A camel's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chinchilla eye
A chinchilla's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A raven's eye
A raven's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A husky dog's eye
A husky dog's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A horse eye
A horse eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chimpanzee eye
Eye of a chimpanzee
Suren Manvelyan

A tokay gecko's eye
A tokay gecko's eye
Suren Manvelyan

[h/t My Modern Met]

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