Nutria

Latin Name Myocaster coypus       Order: Rodentia   Family: Echimyidae

Overview

Nutria are a medium sized aquatic, nocturnal/crepuscular rodent.  They are intelligent and social animals that require significant relationship building and desensitization. The species is most successful in a program setting when started young, less than 3 months of age. Their aquatic abilities and unique features make them an exciting animal for guests.  

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Native to neotropical South America.  This species was once popular in the fur trade and for this reason they have been introduced to many other parts of the world including North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. They prefer marsh-like habitat with heavy vegetation.

Longevity

3 years in the wild 

6-8 years in protected care

Ecosystem Role

Herbivorous animals that help to shape the landscape in their native habitat.  They are an invasive species in all other parts of the world and have contributed a great deal to wetland destruction and habitat loss. 

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information 
    • Young are precocial and eating vegetation within hours of being born.  They mature around 3 months of age. Breeding can occur year-round and there are typically between 3-5 young born.
    • The young reach their full size around 6 months of age.
  • Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles
    • Nocturnal 
    • They enjoy warmer temperatures but also known to live in colder climates. 
  • Substrate: They are diggers, so a dig barrier is essential.  Natural mulch and dirt are good substrate options
  • Social Housing/Colony Management
    • Highly social in the wild, living in large groups of related females and their offspring.  They can be very aggressive towards unrelated individuals. Introducing adult nutria is not recommended. Family units do well housed together with adequate space. 
    • Audubon Zoo housed a mixed family group on exhibit and houses a single female for programs.  This individual is in a large chain link, concrete bottom enclosure and is housed with three macaws.  A large water tub is provided for swimming. 
  • Other General Housing Requirements or Management information
    • Natural wood and browse should be provided for chewing and managing their teeth
    • Minimum enclosure size should be 8×8.
    • Pool option should be at least 4-foot-wide, minimum of 2 ft deep.  Varying depth options is preferred. 

Diet Requirements

  • Life Cycle Relevant Information 
    • Diet in the Wild: Grasses, aquatic vegetation, tree bark, roots, and tubers
    • Known to eat mussels in some areas. 
    • Nutria consume about 1/4 of their body weight each day.
  •  Diet under human care
    • Diet should contain rodent chow or similar dry pellet along with greens, vegetables, especially root vegetables and a small amount of fruit.
    • Browse should be given on a regular basis. Cypress and sweet gum are favorites.
    • Audubon Zoo:
      • Root vegetables, greens, leafeater biscuits and fruit
      • Fresh browse is offered daily including oak, bamboo, banana leaf, and willow.
      • High value items include daily fruit, sweet potato and corn on the cobb.
      • Fed bulk of diet twice a day 

Veterinary Concerns

  • Teeth should be closely monitored for overgrowth. 
  • Tail can be susceptible to frostbite in cold temperatures. 

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

  • Behavioral Relevant Information
    • Digging, swimming and grazing are all important behaviors in this specie’s natural history. 
    • While it is somewhat mobile on land it never travels far from water.
    • They form family groups of related females and their young along with one adult male. Bachelor males are generally solitary.
  • Environmental Enrichment 
    • Different depth pools can be offered 
    • Dig boxes 
    • Newspaper, straw, and other bedding material to nest with
    • Plethora of hide options
    • Large branches and trunk cookies for chewing 
  • Behavioral Enrichment 
    • Whole/large food items 
    • Floating toys
    • Buried toys and/or food items
    • Toys for manipulation 
    • Blankets/towels (should be secured to prevent drowning risk) 
  • Schedule 
    • 2 to 3 times a day
    • Forage options offered twice daily
    • Novel items, behavioral enrichment offered once daily.
  • Other Enrichment Resources 

Training

  • Behaviors Trained
    • Crate
    • Visual target
    • Audio target (works best due to poor eyesight) 
    • Station
    • Up (displays height and webbed feet)
    • Touch (husbandry purposes and for programming)
    • Spin 
    • Towel restraint for husbandry 
    • Public can toss treats in program pool, offer target and participate in touch behavior. 
  • Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement 
    • Reinforcement is used for shaping behaviors and during programs.  
    • They are a fast-moving animal and need continuous stimulation to hold their attention
    • Reinforcement can be offered on a variable schedule once behavior is considered trained
    • Since nutria are very near-sighted the use of touch or verbal cues works best. If using a target be sure to make it easy to recognise and distinguish.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

  • This species can be housed socially in related groups or when introduced as infants.  Adult introductions often result in serious injury. 

Individual Identification

  • Very similar in appearance other than size differences between individuals. 

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

  • Invasive species, wetland conservation, rodent intelligence, aquatic mammals, herbivores, fur trade. 
  • Nutria have been introduced in several countries and are listed among the top 100 most destructive introduced species. They were brought to the US for the fur trade as a substitute for otter and beaver.

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Considered an invasive species
  • In parts of their native habitat they are rare due to overhunting, however they are considered common elsewhere. In areas where they have been introduced they are considered a highly invasive species.
  • Attempts to control the population of introduced nutria have had limited success. In 2005 the state of Louisiana began offering a $5 bounty to licensed trappers for each nutria tail they brought in. The goal is 400,000 animals per year. 

Interesting Natural History Information

  • Nutria were once popular in the fur trade which led to their introduction to other parts of the world.  When the fur became unpopular, many nutria farmers released their stock into the wild. 
  • There are drastic efforts underway to eradicate this prolific rodent throughout the United States. Louisiana offers a $6 dollar bounty on nutria tails to permitted hunters.  It is how some fisherman make their living out of season. 

Did you know…

  • Nutria have mammary glands high on their backs that allow the young to suckle while mom is floating. 
  • Referred to as coypu in its native range.  Nutria actually refers to the soft undercoat that was popular in the fur trade. 

Handling & Presentation Tips

  • This animal does not do well in hand and is best presented restraint free.  Proper training can allow the individual to free roam on the ground with restrictions. 
  • Some facilities present on a platform to make it easier to handle the nutria and avoid having to hold it.
  • The earlier you can start handling, the better. Early desensitisation to handling, harness, crate, etc. will make it much easier to handle when full grown.
  • They can be sensitive to loud noises, particularly when they cannot see the source of the sound.

Use Guidelines

  • 30 minute usage limit (does not include transport time)
  • Table-top is preferred. 
  • Can be given opportunity to free roam if two handlers are presented in approved areas. 

Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • Public can participate in training sessions by holding target and tossing treats in the pool. 
  • When free roaming nutria may go up to visitors, but touching is not allowed
  • During table-top presentations, touching is allowed at the discretion of the handler.  Guest are instructed to two-finger touch on the animals back. 

Transportation Tips

  • Wire dog crate is best due to affinity for chewing. 
  • Crate cover is utilized for off grounds travel

Crating Techniques

  • Crate is placed just outside of enclosure door so that when enclosure opens, the crate is the only option out.  If the nutria refuses to crate the enclosure door is shut and the animal is not used for program. 

Temperature Guidelines

  • This animal does best in warm temperatures but can be exposed to cold temperatures for limited time. 
  • 50-95 degrees has no restrictions 
  • Above 95 requires presenting in shade only and for limited time.
  • 40-50 degrees, handling time is restricted. 

Acquisition Information

  • Nutria are typically acquired as orphaned wildlife cases. 
  • Local trappers can also be utilized as a resource as long as they are permitted and follow state regulations. 

Resources

  • IC contact – RIL TAG

Contributors and Citations

  • Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, LA
  • Baton Rouge Zoo
  • Houston Zoo, Natural Encounters

Comments from the Rating System

  • BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo: If obtained and trained young they can be very good program animals. They require a pool to swim in and a fair bit of space. Easy to deliver a great message about introduced species. It eats about 1/4 of its body weight per day so lots of food and lots of cleaning is required.

Top Photo Credit: Audubon Zoo