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Volume 37 Issue 19 • Aug 30 - Sept 5, 2007 now in our 37th season

Muskeget and its Mammals

by Frances Karttunen

Off the western tip of Nantucket, beyond Tuckernuck in the direction of Martha’s Vineyard, lies Muskeget Island, hardly more than a sandbar in the encroaching sea.  Today a large resident breeding colony of gray seals makes the tiny, low-lying island inhospitable to human visitors, but this is a relatively recent development.

In the 1880s and 1890s a Live-Saving Service station and nineteen other buildings, mostly fishermen’s shanties, stood on Muskeget. Today there are just two buildings left, one of them the former Life-Saving Service boathouse. The other surviving house once belonged in turn to several Latvian-born fishermen.

Construction of the first Muskeget Station began in February 1883.  There was (and there remains) no way to put out fires on the isolated island, and on December 28, 1889, the station burned to the ground.  Nearly seven years passed before the Live-Saving Service rebuilt, and the double-bay boathouse that is still there was not built until 1910.

Manning of the new Muskeget Station was complete in 1897.  It was an international crew.  The keeper was Swedish-born Albert Rohdin, and one of the surfmen under his command was Cape Verdean Annibal Martin.  Another surfman was Azorean Manuel Joseph.  Small though the island was, Rohdin had his family with him for at least part of each year, and Martin’s wife and daughter enjoyed stays on Muskeget too.

In 1915, when the Life-Saving Service was merged with the United States Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard, Keeper Rohdin was promoted to the rank of chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard and transferred to Nantucket’s Surfside Station (today the Star of the Sea youth hostel).  Martin moved to Fair Street on Nantucket and supported his growing family by working as a harbor fisherman.

By 1929, Muskeget Station, having been put on inactive status, was in the process of being dismantled, with lumber from the building transported to Nantucket for reuse.  After the departure of the surfmen and their families, the number of buildings on the island was reduced to 14 houses plus the Life-Saving Service boathouse.  The resident population had become sporadic and seasonal.

Only one person was on Muskeget when the great 1938 Hurricane blew in.   Marcus Dunham, who had served at Muskeget Station in the 1880s, was alone in his shanty as the wind rose.  Dunham saw two nearby shanties blow away, and then his own began to float on the rising storm surge.  Climbing out the window and carrying a shovel, he made for higher ground and spent the rest of the night outdoors dug into the sand.  Fortunately, he remarked, it was a warm rain that came with the storm.  Still, it was the worst day and night of his seventy-nine years.  After the hurricane, only four houses and the boathouse remained.

Over the years since the opening of the original Muskeget Station, humans had been bringing cats to the island and leaving them to fend for themselves.  In 1914, it was reported that as many as twenty feral cats were destroying the birdlife on Muskeget.  Eventually they were hunted down and exterminated, but not before they may have played a role in the evolution of Muskeget’s unique beach mouse (also known as the Muskeget vole).  This little rodent is found nowhere else but Muskeget, and it has often been asserted that it is the sole surviving remnant of a population that once existed from New Jersey to Newfoundland.  There is, however, an alternative explanation of their uniformity and their difference from other, related beach mice. This is that feral cats killed off every last beach mouse with the exception of those few living on a detached sandy island that the cats could not reach.  Eventually the descendants of this temporarily isolated mouse population, all sharing a very narrow gene pool, returned to Muskeget and expanded. 

Whether the Muskeget beach mouse represents an ancient heritage or is the product of predator-driven rapid evolution remains an open question.  Whatever the answer, these days most of us are painfully aware of the destruction that coyotes, feral cats, and abandoned dogs can work on island wildlife.

Exit the humans and the feral cats, enter a new population.  In 2005 the birding world was overjoyed by evidence that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, thought to have been extinct since the early years of the twentieth century, might still survive in the swamps of eastern Arkansas after all.  While the jury is still out on this one, the bird being so very elusive, Muskeget has a fine story of its own about an extinction that wasn’t.

In the 1950s it was believed that gray seals were only to be found in Canada’s maritime provinces and that they had been extinct in U.S. waters since colonial times.  Then in 1958 Nantucket naturalist Clint Andrews found the skull of an adult gray seal on Muskeget and sent it to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where it was definitively identified.  This was a surprising discovery for zoologists, but not for Nantucket fishermen, who were familiar with the big seals they called “horseheads.”  In retrospect it was estimated that at the beginning of the twentieth century there had been about fifty in the area.  The presence of crews manning Muskeget Station, however, kept gray seals from using the island for pupping.

A bounty on seals, five dollars per nose, caused a decline of all seals in Massachusetts waters.  By the beginning of the 1960s, this had reduced the number of gray seals to about fifteen.  Then, in 1962, the state outlawed the killing of seals, and since the 1970s they have been under federal protection.

In 1963 a gray seal pup (the pups being bright, conspicuous white, not gray) was photographed at Smith’s Point.  The seals did not begin pupping in these waters regularly, however, until Wasque Shoal formed in 1976.  A year after the shoal formed, the gray seals took to using it, and their population began a steady increase until the shoal disappeared in 1988, displacing them to Muskeget to form the large colony that occupies Nantucket’s little neighbor island these days.

They hadn’t been driven to extinction in the years before the American Revolution after all, but they had a close brush with extinction during the twentieth century.  Now they are back in great numbers, and seal-watching cruises to Muskeget during the January pupping season have become popular.

Mice, humans, cats, and seals—such is the mammalian history of Muskeget Island.

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