Are Rabbits Rodents? - Similarities and Differences
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Even for those who have kept rabbits as pets for a long time, it is common to refer to them as rodents. As a small furry animal which runs about on all fours, they bear certain similarities to other rodents such as mice, shrews and rats. In behavior, they procreate rapidly, gnaw continuously and live in similar environments to rodent species. With all of these similarities, we understand why many people might confuse them as a rodent animal. Is this true? Are rabbits rodents?
AnimalWised can categorically say that no, rabbits are not rodents. Despite their similarities, they have key taxonomic differences which mean they are not as closely related as some may think. In this article we explain how and why rabbits are not rodents.
What are rodents?
Although we know rabbits are not considered rodents, we understand why they can be easily confused. When we discuss rodents, we are talking about a mammalian group of the biological order Rodentia. This order includes a multitude of different species both extant and extinct. Currently, there are around 2,300 rodent species spread out tross the world. Rodents are considered to be the most varied mammal groups with around 6,400 extant species currently recognized.
Some of the most commonly recognized rodents include:
- Guinea pigs
There are also other rodent species which are not always recognized as being rodents, such as porcupines and capybaras. This is often due to their unique morphologies. What we can see with these examples is there are certain similarities consistent with all rodent species. Share rodent characteristics often have a lot to do with their teeth and include:
- Being quadrupedal
- One pair of incisors in each jaw
- No canine teeth
- Large gap behind incisors
- Baculum (penis bone)
- Incisors grow continuously
Since a rabbit walks on all fours (quadruped) and has teeth which grow continuously, it is common for people to confuse them with rodents. But why is this not so?
What type of animal is a rabbit?
Since we know that rabbits are not rodents, what type of animal are they? Rabbits are lagomorphs, part of a different biological order which is not as diverse as Rodentia. In fact, within the Lagomorpha order, there are only three family groups: rabbits, hares and pikas. Rabbits and hares make up the Leporidae family, whereas pikas are the sole extant animal in the Ochotonidae family.
Another reason rabbits are so often confused as being rodents is because, at one stage, they were rodents. It wasn't until 1912 that rabbits were categorized in the new family Lagomorpha.
Despite their similarities to rodents, rabbits have a bone structure and anatomy closer to that of artiodactyls (ngulate mammals such as goats or deer). They have certain physical characteristics which do not appear in rodents such as those on their paws.
Differences between lagomorphs and rodents
As we have stated above, a rodent and lagomorph are not the same. While they have certain similarities in their teeth, this is also where they differ. Along with dentition, the differences in rodent and lagomorphs include:
- Rodents have a single pair of incisors in their upper and lower jaws, both of equal size. Their enamel only covers the front part.
- Lagomorphs have two sets of incisors in the upper jaw, one beside the other. The larger central incisors are set beside a smaller pair and they are completely covered in enamel.
- Lagomorphs generally have a more substantial and bushy coat which covers their entire body including the extremities.
- Rodents can be omnivorous, while lagomorphs are strictly herbivorous.
- Lagomorphs live in underground burrows, whereas rodents can adapt to a wide variety of different environments, although some do also live underground.
Are guinea pigs rodents?
Another factor which helps us confuse rabbit as rodents is that they are so closely associated with guinea pigs. They often live together and are spoken about as requiring similar care as domestic animals. Some species of guinea pig, such as the Peruvian guinea pig, also resemble certain rabbit breeds in appearance. However, these associations are mainly cultural and not taxonomic, i.e. how the animals are categorized scientifically.
Guinea pigs are rodents. They are grouped as such due to their two incisors in the upper jaw and enamel structure common to rodents. Another issues which confuses guinea pigs and rabbits is their diet. This is because guinea pigs are herbivorous. This is not completely uncommon in rodent species as animals such as the coypu, chinchilla and squirrel are also herbivorous rodents.
Are rabbits mammals?
This confusion over whether rabbits are rodents makes some people question other aspects of their taxonomy. Some people think that because they aren't part of the rodent family, they might be part of other mammal groups such as marsupials. While they are not a marsupial animal, they are definitely mammals. We know this because of the fact they feed their young through milk created in the mammary glands.
Know you know the answer to are rabbits rodents?, you might want to know more about their care and how to look after them. If so, you can look at our articles on:
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1. Burgin, C. J, at al. (2018). How many species of mammals are there? Journal of Mammology, 99(1), 1-14.
2. Ruedas, L. A., Mora, J. M., & Lanier, H. C. (2018). Evolution of lagomorphs. In Smith, A. T., Johnston, C. H., Alves, P. C., & Hackländer, K. (Eds.), Lagomorphs: Pikas, Rabbits, and Hares of the World, (pp. 4-8). Johns Hopkins University Press. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336955797_Evolution_of_lagomorphs
- Mammal Species of the World. Lagomorpha. Disponible en: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/biology/resources/msw3/browse.asp?id=13500001
- Animal Diversity Web. Rodentia. University of Michigan. Disponible en: https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Rodentia.html