(KXAN) — A mysterious animal was recently spotted swimming in Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas. The state’s Parks and Wildlife Department later identified it as a nutria — but just what the heck is that?

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, nutria are a species of common invasive semi-aquatic rodents. Often compared to beavers, the animals originated in South America and were brought to the U.S. in the 1880s during the fur trade. When demand for nutria fur halted, the animals were released into the wild, according to the USDA.

While the rodents — which also visibly resemble South American capybaras — can benefit certain environments by eating weeds and other invasive plants, they can also cause significant damage to their habitats.

In its webpage concerning “Texas’ most unwanted plants and animals,” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) said nutria eat aquatic vegetation and burrow, “which can lead to erosion and damage roads.”

Nutria are currently found in at least 20 states, though they’re most abundant in the Gulf Coast states, according to the USDA. The department says that population control is difficult because nutria have high reproduction rates.

Avoid nutria

Nutria can also be territorial and sometimes will lash out and become aggressive, according to Dr. Brianna Armstrong from Firehouse Animal Health Center in Austin.

Armstrong said she doesn’t often hear about nutria attacks on pets, but it can happen if people and/or their dogs are in the rodent’s territory.

“If you’re in their feeding grounds, or they have offspring with them, or you’ve cornered them, then sometimes they’ll respond and lash out and become aggressive,” Armstrong explained. “So those are kind of the scenarios where you want to be a little bit more careful and try to keep your pets away from them really at all times as much as possible.”

Armstrong said nutria usually startle easily, so if one is close by, it will typically get scared off by a loud noise.

Armstrong also recommends keeping dogs on close leashes and trying to avoid disrupting nutria in their natural habitats.

Risks, diseases from nutria

  • swimming nutria
  • swimming nutria
  • swimming nutria

Nutria can transmit rabies and a disease called leptospirosis, which is a bacterium that causes liver and kidney failure in dogs. It’s spread through urine, but Armstrong said water areas are easy places of transmission.

Leptospirosis is also zoonotic and can be transmitted from dogs to humans.

Not all vet clinics consider vaccines against leptospirosis part of dogs’ core vaccinations, so Armstrong recommends checking records for it.

Dogs should also be up to date on rabies vaccines.

Handling attacks

Armstrong said nutria have really long and piercing teeth, so if a dog (or person) does get bitten, the victim could suffer puncture wounds or lacerations that need to be sutured and should be treated immediately to avoid infection.