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).
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 teath 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 carniverous.
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.
Rabbit, Jackrabbit & Hare - [Cony (archaic), (family Leporidae), Oryctolagus cuniculus (European rabbit), Sylvilagus species (American cottontail rabbit), Lepus species (Hares and Jackrabbits)]
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)]
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 they 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
Capybara - [Capibara, Chiguiro, Carpincho (Spanish); Capivara (Portuguese); Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris]
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
Photo © i0094
Guinea Pig - [Cuy, Cuyo, Cuni, Cobayo, Conejillos de Indias (South America); Cavy, Cavia porcellus]
Native to the Andean region of South America (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia), they don't come from Guinea and they aren't pigs, but rodents related to rats and rabbits (order Rodentia, family Caviidae). Guinea pigs have been domesticated for probably 7000 years by tribes in the Andean region and are no longer found in the wild.
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 weighing between 1.5 and
2.5 pounds. Details and Cooking.
Photo © i0095
Nutria - [Coypu (Spanish), Myocastor coypus]
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. 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 meat. Nutria have been
eradicated from California, and several other states have high profile
eradication efforts because of the serious ecological damage they
Photo © i0096
In Asia rat is considered very highly, though it's generally bandicoot rat rather than common rat. Restaurants in China are now promoting rat 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,
Squirrel - [Tree rat, Fuzzy tailed sewer rat, family Sciuridae]
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 catching,
killing and dressing squirrels. Details and
Health & Nutrition
The more popular culinary rabits 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 trichenosis.