member of the mammalian order Rodentia, characterized by front teeth adapted for gnawing and cheek teeth adapted for chewing. The Rodentia is by far the largest mammalian order; nearly half of all mammal species are rodents. They are worldwide in distribution and are found in almost every terrestrial and freshwater habitat, from the shores of the Arctic Ocean to the hottest deserts. They are variously adapted for running, jumping, climbing, burrowing, swimming, and gliding. Many of them have dexterous forepaws, which they use as hands while sitting on their haunches in a position characteristic of many rodents. The great majority are under a few inches in length; the largest, the capybara, is about 4 ft (120 cm) long and 20 in. (50 cm) high at the shoulder.
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 also mountain beaver, ground squirrel, flying squirrel, pack rat, bandicoot rat, and jumping mouse.