Rodents have enlarged, chisel-shaped upper and lower front incisors that grow throughout their lives. These have hard enamel on the front surface and soft dentine on the back surface, so that unequal wear keeps the chisel edge sharp. There is a gap between the front teeth and the cheek teeth. When the lower jaw is in a forward position, for gnawing, the upper and lower incisors are in contact but the upper and lower cheek teeth are not; thus, wear on the cheek teeth is avoided. The cheeks are drawn in behind the incisors when the animal is gnawing, so that bits of hard material cannot be swallowed. When the lower jaw is pulled back into the chewing position, only the cheek teeth make contact.
The approximately 4,000 rodent species are divided on the basis of their anatomy into three well-defined groups, or suborders, and more than 30 families. The Sciuromorpha, or squirrellike rodents, include the various species of squirrel, chipmunk, marmot, woodchuck (or ground hog), prairie dog, gopher (or pocket gopher), pocket mouse, kangaroo rat, and beaver. The Myomorpha, or mouselike rodents, include a great variety of mouse and rat species, as well as species of hamster, lemming, vole, muskrat, gerbil, dormouse, and jerboa. This is the largest rodent group. The Hystricomorpha, or porcupinelike rodents, include the porcupine, capybara, nutria (or coypu), agouti, cavy (including the domestic guinea pig), mara, and chinchilla, as well as many species whose common names include the term rat (e.g., the South American bush rat).
Rabbits and hares were once classified as rodents because of their large, chisel-shaped incisors. However, they are quite distinct anatomically and have a long, separate evolutionary history; they are now classified in an order of their own, the Lagomorpha. Using DNA analyses as evidence, some scientists believe that the some other groups of rodents have descended from different ancestors and should thus be placed in orders of their own.
See Sir J. R. Ellerman, The Families and Genera of Living Rodents (2 vol., 1940, repr. 1965); B. S. Vindgradov and A. I. Argiropulo, Key to Rodents (tr. 1968).
Any member of the order Rodentia, which contains 50percnt of all living mammal species. Rodents are gnawing, mostly herbivorous, placental mammals. They have one pair of upper and one pair of lower, continuously growing, incisors. When the lower jaw is pulled back, the cheek teeth connect for grinding; when it is pulled forward and down, the incisors meet at the tips for gnawing. Rodent families include squirrels (Sciuridae); Old World mice (see mouse) and rats (Muridae); deer mice (see deer mouse), gerbils, hamsters, lemmings, muskrats, wood rats, and voles (Cricetidae); beaver (Castoridae); gophers (Geomyidae); guinea pigs (Caviidae); pocket mice (see pocket mouse) and kangaroo rats and mice (Heteromyidae); New and Old World porcupines (Erethizontidae and Hystricidae); and hutia (Capromyidae).
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