Rodents & Rabbits
Live Prarie Dog [Glires]

Grandorder Glires (rodents and rabbits) is sister to Grandorder Euarchonta (that's us, other primates, colugos and tree shrews), all lumped under Superorder Euarchontoglires. So yes, people are related to rats, some more closely than others.

Rodents (Order Rodentia) live on all continents except Antarctica and account for about 40% of mammalian species (2277 species). They range in size from 1/4 ounce (African pygmy mouse) to 140 pounds (capybara), but extinct species once ranged to well over 2000 pounds. The photo is of a prairie dog, formerly eaten by some American Indians after the buffalo were gone.   Photo © i0091

Rabbits are commonly thought to be rodents but actually belong to the closely related order Lagomorpha which they share with Pikas (rock rabbits, coneys).


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General & History

The first identifiable rodents date from the early Paleocene, about 64 million years ago. Most of the modern groupings were established by the end of the Eocene, about 33 million years ago.

Rodents are characterized by a pair of very large incisor teeth that grow continuously and are kept under control by gnawing on stuff. There is a long gap and then just a few side teeth. Most are strictly vegetarian, but a good number are not so vegetarian and a few are fairly carnivorous.

Varieties

While there are at least 2277 species of rodent, only a few appear on the dinner table, and even fewer on the North American dinner table. Here we will consider only those commonly eaten or outstandingly interesting for some other reason. All rodents (and rabbits) are forbidden by Judaic and Islamic dietary laws, but other cultures are far more flexible on that issue.

Rabbit, Jackrabbit & Hare   -   [Cony (archaic), (family Leporidae), Oryctolagus cuniculus (European rabbit), Sylvilagus species (American cottontail rabbit), Lepus species (Hares and Jackrabbits)] Cute Bunny with Carrot

Popularly, rabbits are thought of as rodents, but they actually belong to order Lagomorpha, not Rodentia - though the two orders are more closely related than once thought. All domesticated and pet rabbits are of the single European species (O. cuniculus), found wild all across Europe and now Australia where it has become quite the pest.

American cottontail rabbits range from parts of South America through pretty much all of North America. While often hunted for food, they are not farmed. Hares and Jackrabbits (genus Lepus) are similar to rabbits but generally have longer ears, run faster and do not burrow. Like cottontails, they are hunted but not farmed.   Details and Cooking   Photo © i0092

Beaver   -   [Castor canadensis (American beaver), Castor fiber (European beaver)] Live Beaver

Beavers are large aquatic rodents noted for building dams that create extensive ponds blocking fast moving streams. There are two extant species of beaver, and one extinct one that weighed nearly 500 pounds. C. fiber had a brush with extinction due to harvesting for its testicles and glands for medicinal purposes. Today it is being actively reintroduced throughout Europe but is still rated NT (Near Threatened).

Although heavily harvested in the past for its pelts, particularly for making beaver hats, American beavers are doing well and rated as LC (Least Concern). Beaver dams are of great importance ecologically, particularly for maintaining salmon runs.

Beaver is no longer much eaten (well, Castor isn't, anyway), but at the height of the fur trade it was available and cheap. It was particularly attractive to Catholics because the Church had declared beaver to be a fish, thus beaver could be eaten on meatless Fridays and during Lent. Today it'd be a major project to get some beaver meat - where it is available it's sold mainly to mink farms.   Photo © i0093


Suborder Hystricomorpha

This "Porcupine-like" Suborder has not always been considered Rodents, but recent evidence does place them there. Some are called "rats", but they are definitely not rats. They are divided into New World and Old World species. All originated in Africa, but a bunch of them rafted over to South America when the continents were much closer.


Agouti   -   [Dasyprocta fuliginosa (Black Agouti)   |   Dasyprocta leporina (Red Rump Agouti)   |   Dasyprocta punctata (Central American Agouti)   |   all of family Dasyproctidae] Live Agouti Rodent

These rodents are common in north central South America, with C. punctata extending as far north as southern Mexico. They are fairly large, with punctata growing to a little over 9 pounds, while leporina and fuliginosa grow to a little over 13 pounds. They are hunted within their ranges, but are difficult to raise in captivity. While there are other Agouti that are less common, those we list here are all IUCN red list rated LC (least concern).   Photo of Black Agouti by T-34-85 contributed to the Public Domain.

Cane Rat   -   [Grass cutter, Thryonomys swinderianus (greater cane rat)   |   Thryonomys gregorianus (lesser cane rat)   |   both of family Thryonomyidae] Live Cane Rat

Cane rats live in most of sub-Saharan Africa, and are considered serious agricultural pests, particularly around cane plantations. They grow as large as 22 pounds, and despite hunting, their numbers may be increasing due to human farming activity.

Cane rats are eaten in West and Central Africa and are appreciated for their tender, high protein low fat meat. A breeding program has been established, and several African governments are encouraging farming them.   Photo copyright Auréelia Zizo permission with attribution.

Capybara   -   [Capibara, Chiguiro, Carpincho (Spanish); Capivara (Portuguese); Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris] Live Capybara

Native to South America, the capybara is the largest rodent alive today and grows to over 140 pounds. Extinct capybaras were much larger with Josephoartigasia monesi exceeding 2200 pounds. Capybaras are doing well today and have a conservation status of LC (Least Concern), though hunting them has been restricted in some areas where populations have declined.

Capybaras are semi-aquatic, living in most of South America but avoiding the Andes mountains. They are easy going and allow people to pet them, but they do not make good pets because they are unhappy taken from their family and they occasionally bite and get pushy.   Details and Cooking.   Photo © i0094 .

Dassie Rat   -   [Petromus typicus of family Petromuridae] Live Cane Rat

Dassies are called "rock rats", but, while they are rodents, they are not rats. They live near the west coast of South Africa, and grow to about 10 ounces.

I have included them here because there is a possibility of confusion. There are two "dassies" in South Africa, one of which was much eaten by early Dutch settlers, but that one was the Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis), which can grow to a little more than 8 pounds (much more edible). The Hyrax looks much like a rodent, but it's closest relatives are the Elephants and Marine Mammals (Sirenia).   Photo by Harvey Barrison distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.0 Generic.

Desmarest's Hutia   -   [Capromys pilorides of family Capromyidae] Live Hutia

This fairly large rodent is native to the islands of the Cuban archipelago in the Caribbean. Growing to 19 pounds, it is hunted for food on the islands. They have at times been raised in captivity as miniature livestock, and encouraging this is being officially considered.

Despite its small range and human predation, this Hutia is numerous and IUCN rated LC (Least Concern). Hunting them is licensed and regulated. Unfortunately there were no regulations when there were giant Hutia, up to 440 pounds. It is possible one species may still have been alive around the time the Spanish arrived.   Photo by BluesyPete distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Guinea Pig     -   [Cuy, Cuyo, Cuni, Cobayo, Conejillos de Indias (South America); Cavy; Cavia porcellus of family Caviidae] Cute Guinea Pig

These rodents are native to the Andean region of South America (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia) - they don't come from Guinea and they aren't pigs. Guinea pigs have been domesticated for probably 7000 years by tribes in the Andean region. C. porcellus is no longer found in the wild, but several of its near relatives are.

Andean households routinely breed guinea pigs for consumption, feeding them vegetable scraps, but to most of the world they are cute, docile, easy to care for pets. Guinea Pigs are moderate size rodents. Pet varieties usually weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds, but meat varieties weigh up to 4 pounds.   Details and Cooking.   Photo © i0095

Nutria   -   [Coypu (Spanish); Myocastor coypus] Live Nutria

Native to southern South America, the nutria is yet another semi-aquatic rodent that has been spread worldwide for its formerly valuable fur. Now it is a very serious pest and destroyer of wetlands in the US, Europe and Asia. Nutria is still being promoted as a get rich scheme - you buy expensive breeding pairs, raise a lot of nutrias and sell the furs and meat to get rich. Of course the market never materializes.

Nutria are fairly large, weighing up to 20 pounds, and the meat is nutritious, low fat and high protein, similar to guinea pig. Taste and texture are said to be quite similar to rabbit. Unfortunately, the only places there are markets for the meat is in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and there it's sold to people too poor to afford other meats. Nutria were first introduced to California, but have been eradicated here, and several other states have high profile eradication efforts because of the serious ecological damage they cause. To help control them, there are also serious efforts to commercialize Nutria meat for human consumption. They need to get a couple of big name TV chefs behind this - surely it can be sold to yuppies for a premium price. It has also been successfully tested as an ingredient in dog food.   Photo © i0096 .

Paca   -   [Cuniculus paca (lowland Paca)   |   Cuniculus taczanowskii (Highland Paca)   |   both of family Cuniculidae] Live Paca

These rodents, native to cloud forests and rain forests of Central and South America, can weigh up to 31 pounds (C. paca). Paca meat is considered a delicacy, so they are hunted for food throughout their range. Commercial farming is being considered, since their meat can fetch a premium price.   Photo by Dick Culbert distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.0 Generic.

Porcupine   -   [families Erethizontidae (New World)   |   Hystricidae (Old World) of suborder Hystricomorpha] Porcupine in Tree

Porcupines probably originated in Africa, then infested South America, finally making it to North America about 3 million years ago when Panama rose out of the sea. They are considered good eating throughout their range. The most common culinary varieties, all of which are IUCN rated "Least Concern", are:

North American: (Erethizon dorsatum) Native to forests from northern Mexico to Alaska. Arboreal and partially nocturnal, they can grow to 40 pounds, but are usually around 20 pounds. They are not farmed or sold in markets due to handling difficulties.   Photo by Mattnad (cropped) distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported .

Crested Porcupine: (Hystrix cristata) Native to Italy, North Africa and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, these are mostly nocturnal. They can weigh up to 60 pounds, and are widely eaten by humans within their range.

Cape Porcupine: (Hystrix africaeaustralis) Native from the southern tip of Africa as far north as Congo, these are mostly nocturnal. Weighing up to 66 pounds, this porcupine was much favored by Dutch settlers in South Africa.

Rock Cavy   -   [Mocó; Kerodon rupestris of family Caviidae] Live Rock Cavy

These tailless rodents are native to rocky parts of Brazil, where they can grow to around 2-1/4 pounds. Adult males sometimes display homosexual behavior, and, like certain high school wrestling coaches we've heard of, adult males will sometimes court under-age males. Rock Cavys are common and often hunted by local humans for food.   Photo by MarceloGonçalves Moura Valle distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.



Rats   -   Muroidea

Many animals called "Rat" are not really rats, and most listed here are not "true rats", but Superfamily Muroidea, does include the real rats. Eating rat is strongly forbidden by Judaism and Islam and in some South American cultures. While not forbidden to Christians and other Pagans, they just aren't considered an appetizing idea in Europe and the Americas - though Muskrat has a significant following in North America.

In Asia rat is considered very highly, though it is generally Bandicoot Rat or Bamboo Rat rather than common rat that is eaten. Restaurants in China are now promoting rat (2011) because they've already cooked and served all the snakes that ate rats, so rats are plentiful now. Gives a new meaning to "ratatouille", it does.


Bandicoot Rat   -   [Rice field rats, Bandicota bengalensis (lesser bandicoot rat), Bandicota indica (greater bandicoot rat)   -   all of family Muridae] Fresh Bandicoot Rat

The Lesser Bandicoot Rat, not the common rat, is the rat eaten in Southeast Asia and southern China. Not related to the real bandicoot, they are major pests in rice and wheat fields throughout Southeast Asia and India. While they are hunted, trapped and eaten in great quantity, conservation status is LC (Least Concern) because they breed at an astonishing rate.

The Greater Bandicoot Rat's range extends into India. They are serious pests and have more "rat like" behavior than the lesser bandicoot. They hang around human habitations eating vegetables, grains and garbage. Their borrowing is very destructive, and they can even burrow through brick work.

Bandicoot rats are much larger and plumper than the common rat, and the tail is proportionately shorter. For B. indica head/body length is about 10 inches and overall length is 16 inches. Photo from blog Tropical Ramblings - I didn't find an email for permission.   Details and Cooking

Chinese Bamboo Rat   -   [Rhizomys sinensis of family Spalacidae]
Bamboo Rat, Mounted Specimen

This rat, native to a large part of China, lives mainly on bamboo roots and shoots. Living under ground in well designed burrows with numerous lightly plugged escape routes, It is fairly large and can grow to over 4 pounds. It's natural predators are snow leopards and red pandas, but it's most dangerous predator is humans hunting it for food. Despite this it is still numerous and IUCN red listed LC (Least Concern).   Photo by Daderot contributed to the Public Domain. .

Common Rats   -   [Roof rat, Ship rat, Black rat, Rattus rattus   |   Brown rat, Sewer rat, Norwegian rat, Common rat, Wharf rat, Rattus norvegicus   |   all of family Muridae] Live Norwegian Rat

Native to tropical Asia (R. rattus) and China (R. norvegicus), rats had spread throughout the Old World by Roman times, and throughout the rest of the world aboard European ships in the 1500s. Here in Los Angeles we have roof rats (mostly medium gray) but in cooler parts of North America the much larger brown rat predominates (photo). The various strains of laboratory rats were developed from R. norvegicus.

While despised as filthy in the wild, rats kept as pets are found to be clean, friendly and intelligent. Most pet rats are fancier breeds of R. norvegicus. Common rat is not much cooked except in extreme circumstances because it's just not meaty enough to bother with.   Details and Cooking.   Photo by Ross distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.0 Generic.

Muskrat   -   [Musquash; Swamp Rabbit; Ondatra zibethicus]
Live Muskrat in Pond

Muskrats are semi-aquatic rodents native to North America, but were introduced into Europe in the early 1900s for their then valuable fur. Since then they have spread all the way from France to Kamchatka and are well established in that range. They have also been introduced to some ranges in South America. They are considered serious pests in Holland and Belgium because they dig big holes in dikes, but otherwise don't seem to be much of a problem.

Not true rats, but related to hamsters and lemmings, muskrats are medium size, weighing up to 4 pounds and about 13 inches long, plus 11 inches of tail. The tail is scaly and flattened, but vertically, not horizontally like the beaver. Muskrats may dig burrows to live in, or may build lodges similar to those of beavers, but made from lighter materials. They are another animal permitted on meatless Fridays and Lent because the Catholic Church has classified them as fish. Muskrats are plentiful and IUCN rated LC (Least Concern). Cooking Muskrat so it is edible requires unusual and very specific steps.   Details and Cooking.   Photo by Alan D. Wilson distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v2.5 Generic.



Squirrel   -   [Tree rat, Fuzzy tailed sewer rat; family Sciuridae] Live Fox Squirrel

Squirrels are divided into tree living (arboreal) and burrowing ground squirrel categories. Some of the arboreal varieties are known as "flying squirrels" because they've developed large flaps of skin that allow them to glide from tree to tree. Flying squirrels are too small to be of culinary interest.

The photo is of an eastern fox squirrel, the largest North American arboreal squirrel, weighing as much as 2.2 pounds. This squirrel and the very similar eastern gray squirrel are large, aggressive and adaptable. Due to human introduction into non-native ranges in both North America and Europe, they threaten to drive all other arboreal squirrels to extinction.

Technically, Woodchucks and other marmots are oversize burrowing ground squirrels, but we'll treat them separately here. The smaller ground squirrels are not generally of culinary interest.

Squirrel was once significant in American cooking, particularly in the Southeast, but has fallen out of favor due to the inconvenience of shooting and dressing the squirrels - people just don't have time for that any more.   Details and Cooking   Photo by Aaron Logan distributed under Creative Commons Attribution 1.0.

Woodchuck / Groundhog   -   [Whistlepig, Pasture pig; Wuchak (Algonquian); Marmota monax] Resting Woodchuck

Woodchucks live from central Alaska, down through Minnesota, south to Arkansas and Georgia, and as far north as Newfoundland, but they avoid all the Western states. They prefer moist grassland near forests. They can grow to 31 pounds under ideal conditions, but are usually between 4 and 9 pounds.

Having a taste for garden vegetation and agricultural crops, they are considered major pests. Woodchucks also dig large multi-tunneled burrows which can drain ponds, undermine foundations, cause injury to farm animals and damage equipment.

Woodchucks are also considered good eating by many people living within their range, but they are not farmed (too wild in temperament). They are almost completely vegetarian but have been observed to eat some insects and snails. This does not present a trichinosis problem.   Details and Cooking   Photo by Cephas distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Unported.

Health & Nutrition

The more popular culinary rabbits and rodents are low in fat and good sources of protein. Aquatic varieties may be a bit fattier.

Wild rodents sometimes carry diseases, but those grown commercially should not be a problem. Any wild rodents that are not strictly vegetarian should be cooked well done to avoid trichinosis.

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