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Rodents are mammals of the order Rodentia, from the Latin rodere “to gnaw”. They are the most numerous group of mammals on the planet, making up about 41% of known species. They are a very diverse group in both size and habitat, ranging from the South American capybara weighing up to 66kg, to the Baluchistan pygmy jerboa, the female adults of which weigh less than 4gm.
Over time rodents have been used as food, for clothing, as pets, some species such as the brown rat, black rat, and the house mouse, are serious pests, eating and spoiling food stored by people, and spreading diseases such as Hantavirus & Salmonellosis.
Rodents share many characteristics, but you can tell Mice & Rats apart. Here are some useful tips.
Rodents like the Black rat and Brown rat which are seen as pests (with associated health risks in an urban or residential environment) are not native British rodents. They are now naturalised but originally Black/Ship rats arrived in Britain on Roman ships having worked their way to Europe from India. Brown rats are natives of Central Asia and arrived more recently during the early 1700's - again as stowaways in ships cargos.
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Rodents have adapted to almost every terrestrial habitat, from cold tundra (where they can live under snow) to hot deserts, tropical rain forests and temperate landscapes. In fact rodents can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Some species of rodent are also seen as invaders of the human environment:
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Most rodent species are reasonably small with robust bodies, long tails and short limbs. They tend to be herbivores (eating seeds, grains, roots and leaves). Some species however are more adaptable omnivores consuming a mixed diet that can include, insects, fish and meat as well as plants and grains.
The most noticeable feature all rodents possess is their razor sharp incisor teeth. As the incisors do not stop growing the rodents must continually gnaw to wear them down and prevent them getting too long. These formidable teeth are also used to excavate burrows, widen gaps to squeeze through and defend themselves.
These animals fall into three categories:
Nocturnal rodents often have enlarged eyes and some sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Many also have vibrissae (long, thick and sensitive whiskers) used for “whisking” or touch.
Rodents use scent marking in communication, marking food trails and establishing territories. House mice in particular use urine deposits containing pheromones for group recognition and social structure. Rodents can recognise kin using olfactory (sense of smell) from urine, gland secretions and faeces.
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There are three commensal rodent pests that have long been associated with people:
Some rodents are seen as critical agricultural pests, consuming or rendering inedible large quantities of stored food. It has been estimated that in Asia in just one year, rats and mice can remove rice from the human food chain that could have fed nearly 200 million people*.
The curiosity and inquisitiveness of rats and mice when exploring for food sources and shelter causes damage to property and structures as well as food. Their constant gnawing can damage insulation, pipes, doors, floorboards and they will also shred soft materials for nesting.
People have become a reliable source of food and shelter for these rodents since our ancestors progressed from hunter gathers to farmers. Rodents are cautious yet inquisitive and have learnt to avoid capture and be wary of poisons, making them complicated pests to control.
They are also carriers of disease as pathogens in their urine and faeces transmit diseases such as Hantavirus, Salmonellosis and the case of rats Weil’s disease (Leptospirosis), as well as Rat bite fever.
*"Mice, rats, and people: The bio-economics of agricultural rodent pests".Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (2003).
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