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The 6 Smartest Rodents

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In this article you can meet the smartest rodents that exist. You'll wonder how so much ingenuity fits in such small bodies.
The 6 Smartest Rodents
Last update: 03 October, 2021

The survival of smaller animals can hang in the balance several times a day. For this reason, in the absence of strength and natural weapons, many species have to turn to their brains. Welcome to our collection of the smartest rodents around.

Both in observational and experimental studies it has been shown that rodents are endowed with extraordinary intelligence (understood as the ability to adapt to the environment). In addition to being able to invade areas, they show signs of intelligence that often puts human intelligence to the test.

The 6 smartest rodents

Rodents are placental mammals, and there are currently 2,280 currently known species, which makes them the most numerous order within the Mammalia class. They’re characterized by their continuously-growing sharp incisor teeth, which they use to open and gnaw the shells of the seeds that make up their diet. Many of them consume other foods, such as herbs or small insects.

In general, they’re nocturnal or twilight animals that are part of the diet of many predators. Therefore, their only real weapon to defend themselves is to outsmart their hunter. To this we must add that most species are gregarious, so that cooperation, empathy, and the complexity of their social relationships can help their survival prospects.

The smartest rodents in the world depend on their cunning to survive day after day.

1. Mongolian gerbil ( Meriones unguiculatus )

This small rodent lives in groups of up to 40 individuals within complex networks of underground burrows. It lives in desert areas of Mongolia and China, where it feeds mainly on seeds.

Gerbils are known for their incredible jumping ability and for being one of the most intelligent rodents out there. They learn what’s happening around them very quickly. They track where their predators are moving, they know how to find good stores of seeds, and they plan excellent escape routes. In addition, they communicate in a complex way with their peers to transmit all this information.

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2. Beavers

The Castor genus is known for its ability to modify their surroundings based on its needs. The dams that beavers build aren’t only strong enough to contain the flow of a river, but they also adapt them according to the nature of the current. If it’s weak, the dam is straight, but if it’s a quick current then they’ll build it in a convex shape to resist the impact.

The objective of creating these dams, apart from being safe from predators, is to generate a haven of calm water in which to swim and gather food for the winter without any problems. In addition, when the water freezes, the movement of floating branches on the surface prevents it from solidifying completely, giving the beavers the opportunity to exit the burrow if necessary.

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3. Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)

This rodent bears a certain resemblance to beavers (in fact, it’s known as a “false beaver”). The reason is that it also builds burrows in rivers and ponds, but they’re smaller in size and the dens are in the shape of a mound, not a dike. In addition, they add a “door” made of branches and leaves, which they renew every day.

Native to North America, the muskrat has been introduced to Europe as an invasive species. Thanks to its ability to live in brackish and fresh water, as well as its omnivorous diet, it can adapt to almost any environment. In addition, it’s resistant to pollution generated by humans.

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4. Squirrels

The subfamily Sciurinae, to which tree and flying squirrels commonly belong, contains more than 270 species. They’re considered one of the most intelligent rodents for their ability to anticipate the nutritional needs they’ll have in the winter. To do this, they bury and accumulate the precise amount of food they need.

The problem is that squirrels sometimes steal from each other if they don’t hide well to bury their food. At other times they don’t remember exactly where they’ve done it. However, this isn’t a problem, because this is where their great potential as seed dispersers and “tree planters” lies.

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5. Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)

The capybara is the largest rodent in the world, almost one meter tall (3 feet). These animals live in family groups and have a great variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other, either to warn of danger or to interact. Prosocial behaviors have been discovered in them and a great sensitivity to reciprocity.

Prosocial behavior occurs when a living being acts to benefit others and not himself.

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6. Common rat (Rattus norvegicus)

Rats couldn’t be absent from this list of smartest rodents, and they could probably occupy the podium. Their adaptability and complex social relationships have been extensively studied for years. They cooperate with each other to solve puzzles, their spatial and operational memory are excellent, and they even take care of their injured compatriots.

Rats vocalize in inaudible tones when socializing through play, equivalent to human laughter. In addition, they also did it with the experimenters.

There’s a stigma surrounding them, that labels them as dirty creatures and transmitters of diseases. Some experts point out that the ability of rats to detect and exploit human failings in their plans to kill them may have something to do with it. However, with each new discovery, this myth is dismantled, exposing its awakened and sociable nature.

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The study of intelligence itself also evolves as the smartest rodents (and other animals) demonstrate that there are many ways to perceive and relate to the environment. Each form of life needs specific cognitive capacities for its survival, and the fact that they’re not like human ones doesn’t mean that they’re inferior in any way.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Skyrienė, G., & Paulauskas, A. (2012). Distribution of invasive muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and impact on ecosystem. Ekologija58(3).
  • Lalot, M., Liévin-Bazin, A., Bourgeois, A., Saint Jalme, M., & Bovet, D. (2021). Prosociality and reciprocity in capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) in a non-reproductive context. Behavioural Processes188, 104407.
  • Davis, H. (1996). Underestimating the rat’s intelligence. Cognitive brain research, 3(3-4), 291-298. https://doi.org/10.1016/0926-6410(96)00014-6
  • Matzel, LD y Sauce, B. (2017). Diferencias individuales: estudios de casos de inteligencia de roedores y primates. Revista de psicología experimental: aprendizaje y cognición animal, 43 (4), 325–340. https://doi.org/10.1037/xan0000152

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.