Friday, April 07, 2006

The origins of nutria

Readers of the book Alabama Curiosities know about the annual Nutria Rodeo once held in Mobile County. In writing about that, I briefly covered the U.S. origins of these swamp-dwelling rodents:

"Nutria do breed like rats, though. So you begin to see the problem caused by E.A. 'Mr. Ned' McIlhenny, heir to the Tabasco-sauce fortune, who imported the nutria to Louisiana from Argentina in 1938. He hoped to market their fur, but have you ever heard of a nutria-fur coat?

"Mr. Ned planned to confine his nutria to Avery Island, Louisiana, but the 1941 hurricane spread them around a bit, and in their new quarters they happily set about doing that thing that nutria do so well. By the 1960s nutria had overrun the Gulf Coast and were literally devouring thousands of acres of marshland."

Now I learn that I may have been a bit hard on Mr. Ned. In the April 3, 2006, Tuscaloosa News, photographer Michael E. Palmer has a fine photo of a nutria sunning itself in Moody Swamp and a short article that reads, in part:

"The South abounds with tales that just won't go away, like the one about E.A. McIlhenny being solely responsible for introducing large swamp rats known as nutria into the South. ... The sad truth is that McIlhenny simply turned them loose of his own volition, but he did not import them himself. He acquired his nutria from a local who was also attempting to farm them. ... Genetic research on modern nutria suggests that McIlhenny can't be solely responsible for the rodents' introduction to U.S. soil."

I am delighted to know this. Thanks, Michael!


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