Although we often think of rats and mice when hearing about rodents, this is actually the single largest group of mammals and includes beavers, porcupines, capybaras, squirrels, hamsters, gerbils, and chinchillas.
Think that subway rat you saw was a big rodent? Capybaras have an average weight of 108 lbs and stand about 2 feet tall at the shoulder. They are easily the world’s larges rodent, and even have webbed feet for swimming.
Gamblers used to bet on actual rat races, with colored ribbons tied to the rodents to tell them apart. Later this term was applied to a fighter plane training exercise, but the term now means career competition, often in an unsatisfying job, but with the hope of future reward, such as promotion or status.
“Rodent” is from the Latin “to gnaw,” and for good reason. A defining trait of the rodent order is that their incisors never stop growing, so rodents must chew frequently or grind teeth together to keep their teeth worn down enough to function. Because of the unique tooth anatomy, however, rodent teeth are actually harder than many metals, including iron, and rats have been known to gnaw through metal pipes.
Rats might be unfairly blamed for spreading bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. New research suggests the deadly bacteria spread too fast to be carried by rats, nor do there seem to be enough rat remains from the time. It was more likely carried by fleas and lice which rode on humans, not rodents.
Rodents have many gifts, but predicting the seasons is not one of them. Beloved groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, supposedly the knowing forecaster of springtime’s approach, is accurate less than half of the time.
No rodents can truly fly, but flying squirrels can fake it pretty well with long glides on the skin between their legs. One giant flying squirrel set a record of 450 meters (1,475 feet) for “farthest glide by a mammal.”