The distinguishing feature of the rodents is their pairs of continuously growing, razor-sharp, open-rooted incisors. These incisors have thick layers of enamel on the front and little enamel on the back. Because they do not stop growing, the animal must continue to wear them down so that they do not reach and pierce the skull. As the incisors grind against each other, the softer dentine on the rear of the teeth wears away, leaving the sharp enamel edge shaped like the blade of a chisel. Most species have up to 22 teeth with no canines or anterior premolars. A gap, or diastema, occurs between the incisors and the cheek teeth in most species. This allows rodents to suck in their cheeks or lips to shield their mouth and throat from wood shavings and other inedible material, discarding this waste from the sides of their mouths.
The cheek pouch is a specific morphological feature used for storing food and is evident in particular subgroups of rodents like kangaroo rats, hamsters, chipmunks and gophers which have two bags that may range from the mouth to the front of the shoulders. True mice and rats do not contain this structure but their cheeks are elastic due to a high degree of musculature and innervation in the region.
While the largest species, the Capybara, can weigh as much as 66 kg (146 lb), most rodents weigh less than 100 g (3.5 oz). The smallest rodent is the Baluchistan pygmy jerboa, which averages only 4.4 cm (1.7 in) in head and body length, with adult females weighing only 3.75 g (0.132 oz).
Rodents have wide-ranging morphologies, but typically have squat bodies and short limbs. The majority of species are plantigrade, walking on both the palms and soles of their feet, and have claw-like nails. The nails of burrowing species tend to be long and strong, while arboreal rodents have shorter, sharper nails. Rodent species use a wide variety of methods of locomotion including quadrupedal walking, running, burrowing, climbing, bipedal hopping (kangaroo rats and hopping mice), swimming and even gliding. The majority of rodents have tails, which can be of many shapes and sizes. The fur on the tails can vary from bushy to completely bald. The tail is sometimes used for communication, as when beavers slap their tails on the water surface or house mice rattle their tails to indicate alarm. Some species have vestigial tails or no tails at all. In some species, the tail is capable of regeneration if a part is broken off.
Rodents generally have well-developed senses of smell, hearing, and vision. Nocturnal species often have enlarged eyes and some are sensitive to ultraviolet light. Many species have long, sensitive whiskers or vibrissae for touch or "whisking".
One of the most widespread groups of mammals, rodents can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They are the only terrestrial placental mammals to have colonized Australia and New Guinea without human intervention. Humans have also allowed the animals to spread to many remote oceanic islands. Rodents have adapted to almost every terrestrial habitat, from cold tundra (where they can live under snow) to hot deserts.
Most rodents are herbivorous, feeding exclusively on plant material such as seeds, stems, leaves, flowers, and roots. Some are omnivorous and a few are predators.
Rodents exhibit a wide range of types of social behavior ranging from the mammalian caste system of the Naked mole-rat, the extensive "town" of the colonial Prairie dog, through family groups to the independent, solitary life of the Edible dormouse. Larger rodents tend to live in family units where parents and their offspring live together until the young disperse.
Rodents use scent marking in many social contexts including inter- and intra-species communication, the marking of trails and the establishment of territories. Their urine provides genetic information about individuals including the species, the sex and individual identity, and metabolic information on dominance, reproductive status and health.
Many rodent species, particularly those that are diurnal and social, have a wide range of alarm calls that are emitted when they perceive threats. There are both direct and indirect benefits of doing this. A potential predator may stop when it knows it has been detected, or an alarm call can allow conspecifics or related individuals to take evasive action. Social rodents have a wider range of vocalizations than do solitary species.
Some species of rodent are monogamous, with an adult male and female forming a lasting pair bond. Monogamy can come in two forms; obligate and facultative. In obligate monogamy, both parents care for the offspring and play an important part in their survival. This occurs in species such as California mice, Oldfield mice, Malagasy giant rats and Beavers. In facultative monogamy, the males do not provide direct parental care and stay with one female because they cannot access others due to being spatially dispersed. Prairie voles appear to be an example of this form of monogamy, with males guarding and defending females within their vicinity.
In polygynous species, males will try to monopolize and mate with multiple females. As with monogamy, polygyny in rodents can come in two forms; defense and non-defense. Defense polygyny involves males controlling territories that contain resources that attract females. This occurs in ground squirrels like Yellow-bellied marmots, California ground squirrels, Columbian ground squirrels and Richardson's ground squirrels. Some species are also known to directly defend their resident females and the ensuing fights can lead to severe wounding. In species with non-defense polygyny, males are not territorial and wander widely in search of females to monopolize. These males establish dominance hierarchies, with the high-ranking males having access to the most females. This occurs in species like Belding's ground squirrels and some tree squirrel species.
Promiscuity, in which both males and females mate with multiple partners, also occurs in rodents. In species such as the White-footed mouse, females give birth to litters with multiple paternities. Several rodent species have flexible mating systems that can vary between monogamy, polygyny and promiscuity.
Female rodents play an active role in choosing their mates. Factors that contribute to female preference may include the size, dominance and spatial ability of the male.
Rodents may be born either altricial (blind, hairless and relatively underdeveloped) or precocial (mostly furred, eyes open and fairly developed) depending on the species. Females with altricial young typically build elaborate nests before they give birth and maintain them until their offspring are weaned. The female gives birth sitting or lying down and the young emerge in the direction she is facing. The newborns first venture out of the nest a few days after they have opened their eyes and initially keep returning regularly. As they get older and more developed, they visit the nest less often and leave permanently when weaned.
In precocial species, the mothers invest little in nest building and some do not build nests at all. The female gives birth standing and the young emerge behind her. Mothers of these species maintain contact with their highly mobile young with maternal contact calls. Though relatively independent and weaned within days, precocial young may continue to nurse and be groomed by their mothers. Rodent litter sizes also vary and females with smaller litters spend more time in the nest than those with larger litters.
Mother rodents provide both direct parental care, such as nursing, grooming, retrieving and huddling, and indirect parenting, such as food caching, nest building and protection to their offspring. In many social species, young may be cared for by individuals other than their parents, a practice known as alloparenting or cooperative breeding. This is known to occur in Black-tailed prairie dogs and Belding's ground squirrels, where mothers have communal nests and nurse unrelated young along with their own. Infanticide exists in numerous rodent species and may be practiced by adult conspecifics of either sex. Several reasons have been proposed for this behavior, including nutritional stress, resource competition, avoiding misdirecting parental care and, in the case of males, attempting to make the mother sexually receptive.
Rodents including guinea pigs, mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, degus and chipmunks make convenient pets able to live in small spaces, each species with its own qualities. Most are normally kept in cages of suitable sizes and have varied requirements for space and social interaction. If handled from a young age, they are usually docile and do not bite. Guinea pigs have a long lifespan and need a large cage. Rats also need plenty of space and can become very tame, can learn tricks and seem to enjoy human companionship. Mice are short-lived but take up very little space. Hamsters are solitary but tend to be nocturnal. They have interesting behaviors, but unless handled regularly they may be defensive. Gerbils are not usually aggressive, rarely bite and are sociable animals that enjoy the company of humans and their own kind.