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In terms of number of species (though not necessarily in terms of number of organisms–population–or biomass) rodents make up the largest order of mammals, with over 40 percent of mammalian species belonging to the order.

There are between 2000 and 3000 species of rodents, which are found in vast numbers on all continents except Antarctica (they are the only placental order other than bats, Chiroptera, to reach Australia without human introduction), most islands, and in all habitats except for oceans.

Most rodents are small; the tiny African pygmy mouse is only 6 cm in length and 7 grams in weight. On the other hand, the capybara can weigh up to 45 kg (100 pounds) and the extinct Phoberomys pattersoni is believed to have weighed 700 kg.

Rodents have two incisors in the upper as well as in the lower jaw which grow continuously and must be kept worn down by gnawing; this is the origin of the name, from the Latin rodere, to gnaw, and dent, tooth. These teeth are used for cutting wood, biting through the skin of fruit, or for defense. The teeth have enamel on the outside and exposed dentine on the inside, so they self-sharpen during gnawing. Rodents lack canines, and have a space between their incisors and premolars. Nearly all rodents feed on plants, seeds in particular, but there are a few exceptions which eat insects or even fish.

Rodents are important in many ecosystems because they reproduce rapidly, and can function as food sources for predators, mechanisms for seed dispersal, and as disease vectors. Humans use rodents as a source of fur, as model organisms in animal testing, for food, and even in detecting landmines.

Members of non-rodent orders such as Chiroptera (bats), Scandentia (treeshrews), Insectivora (moles, shrews and hedgehogs), Lagomorpha (hares, rabbits and pikas) and mustelid carnivores such as weasels and mink are sometimes confused for rodents.

The fossil record of rodents began after the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. By the end of the Eocene epoch, beavers and squirrels appeared in the fossil record. They originated in Laurasia, the joined continents of North America, Europe, and Asia. Some species colonized Africa, giving rise to the earliest hystricognaths. From there they rafted to South America, an isolated continent during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs. By the Miocene, Africa collided with Asia, allowing rodents such as porcupines to spread into Eurasia. During the Pliocene, rodent fossils appeared in Australia. Even though marsupials are the prominent mammals in Australia, rodents make up almost 25% of the mammals on the continent. Meanwhile, the Americas became joined and some rodents expanded into new territory; mice headed south and porcupines headed north.

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