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12 Interesting Facts About Rodents

From country mice to pet hamsters to urban rats, we've uncovered some surprising facts about the fascinating world of rodents.

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RodentsFarinosa/Getty Images

What Is a Rodent?

Scurrying and chomping since the Cretaceous period (circa 65 million years ago), rodents are a group of small, non-flying mammals with large, sharp front teeth. For many people, rodents are cute and cuddly creatures, while others think of them only as nuisance animals.

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Mouse eating cheeseKseniia Glazkova/Getty Images

What Does Rodent Mean?

The mid-19th-century word “rodent” (or Rodentia) comes from the Latin (and Italian) verb “rodere” meaning “to gnaw, eat away or prey on.” It has been hypothesized that there may be a direct connection between the term rodent and the Old English word rætt (rat).

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GopherArt-Benco/Getty Images

How Many Types of Rodents Are There?

Out of the more than 4,600 species of mammals in the world, nearly half belong to the rodent family. Of course, most people know that mice and rats are rodents, but did you know that beavers, porcupines, squirrels and prairie dogs are too? Not rabbits, hares, moles and hedgehogs, however. They belong to a different mammal species altogether.

Nowhere near exhaustive, here is a list of other common rodents you might recognize:

  • Chinchillas;
  • Chipmunks;
  • Gerbils;
  • Gophers (pictured above);
  • Groundhogs;
  • Guinea pigs;
  • Hamsters;
  • Lemmings;
  • Marmots;
  • Muskrats;
  • Woodchucks.
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Capybaras Javier Ghersi/Getty Images

What Is the Largest Rodent?

Weighing an average of 100 lbs., the semi-aquatic capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), pictured above is the largest living rodent in the world. Native to Central and tropical South America, it belongs to the Caviidae (or Cavy) family, a suborder which includes the adorable guinea pig.

In contrast, the smallest rodent known to man is the African pygmy mouse, which averages 2-1/2-in. in length and weighs only 1/4-oz., soaking wet.

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mouseRudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock

What Do Rodents Eat?

Rodents are scavengers who mostly feed on plants, seeds, fruit, grasses, leaves and the bark of trees. Some rodents consume insects or other small animals. And there’s even a South American rat that catches and eats fish.

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Owl eating a rodent hipproductions/Getty Images

What Eats Rodents?

Because most rodents are small, they’re the perfect bite-size meal for birds of prey (hawks and owls), felines (cats and lynx), reptiles (snakes and lizards), dogs (terriers), weasels (otters and badgers) and other carnivorous animals.

Interestingly, humans have had a long tradition of dining on rodents. In ancient Rome, the dormouse was considered a delicacy. Even today, rodent meat is still eaten in many parts of the world. For example, the agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) in Latin America, the guinea pig in Peru and the bandicoot rat in Southeast Asia.

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Food on a counterSisoje/Getty Images

What Attracts Rodents?

Food attracts rodents. The best way to prevent rodents from taking up residence around and inside your home is by eliminating food sources and cleaning up around nesting sites. Don’t forget to seal up even the tiniest entries. Rodents are capable of squeezing through small holes thanks to their long and flexible bodies.

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Mouse in a nestdb_beyer/Getty Images

Where Do Rodents Live?

Rodent habitats are found almost everywhere except on Antarctica, New Zealand and some smaller ocean islands. Rodents can live and thrive in urban areas, rural farmland, rainforests, mountainous terrains, grasslands, swamps and deserts. Some set up residence by burrowing (gophers) and others are semi-aquatic (beavers). Those living in colder climates are known to hibernate (groundhogs) through the long winters, like bears.

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Siberian hamsterIrina Orlova/Getty Images

How Long Do Rodents Live?

That depends on the rodent.

Rats live an average of 12 months. The Siberian hamster lives from eight to 10 years. The longest-living rodent, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), has a reported lifespan of up to 30 years.

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Overgrown Guinea Pig teethAlexandra Jursova/Getty Images

Do Rodents Teeth Keep Growing?

Yes. Rodents have prominent upper and lower pairs of teeth that are rootless and grow continuously. For the rodent to be successful at eating, the teeth must be kept short and sharp. Without trimming them, the rodent could starve to death.

Note: The upper and lower incisors of an adult rat grow at a rate of about 1/8-in. per week!

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Mouse chewing a wiretenra/Getty Images

Why Do Rodents Chew on Things?

Rodent’s incisors must be worn down by chewing; self-sharpening of the teeth is a rodent’s life-long objective. To the chagrin of homeowners, rodents will grind away on almost anything they can find to whittle away their tooth enamel, including wires, glass, plastic, rubber, wood, rock and metal.

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Do Rodents Spread Disease?

Throughout history, rodents have earned a reputation as vectors of diseases.

In the Middle Ages, Europe’s bubonic plague was blamed on rats. However, a 2018 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) suggests the Black Death’s “super-spreaders” might have been fleas and body lice. According to the authors, it’s more likely these parasites drank the blood of plague-infected rodents, then bit humans.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that worldwide, mice and rats spread more than 35 diseases through human contact, either directly (via feces, urine, saliva or bites) or indirectly (via parasites).

Toni DeBella
Toni DeBella is a freelance travel, lifestyle and digital content writer based in a medieval hill town in central Italy. Her work has been featured in such publications as Fodor's, The Telegraph, Walks of Italy, Italy Magazine,, Touring Bird (via [email protected]) and more. Most recently she authored the 2020 edition of DK Eyewitness Sicily travel guide. When Toni is not roaming around Europe, you'll find her tending her alley-side container garden or honing her clay-court tennis game.

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