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Rodents & The Winter Solstice

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Boston Public Library
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Rodents!

It might surprise you, but rodents are the largest group of mammals, constituting a little over 40% of all mammal species – more than 30 of which can be found in North Dakota. That includes mice, voles, rats, pocket gophers, prairie dogs, squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, muskrats, and porcupines. It is an amazingly diverse group.

But one characteristic that all rodents have in common? Teeth that are specialized for gnawing.

All rodents have a pair of upper and lower incisors that continuously grow in length. The orange-colored outer enamel is very hard, while the inner material is much softer. So, as the tooth wears away, a sharp edge is maintained. Rodents have to gnaw – otherwise their teeth could grow long enough to prop their mouths open. And that would not be good!

We often think if rodents as pests, such as mice eating grain or as a mouse in the house. But many rodents are important food items for several animals, including hawks, owls, and fox. Prairie dogs live in towns that may support a rather unique community of species including black footed ferrets and burrowing owls. Beavers and muskrats are important in aquatic habitats and have been important furbearers. And those are just a few examples.

So, rodents are more than just pests, they are an ecologically important group with continuously growing teeth.

Winter Solstice

We have the winter solstice coming up this week – on Wednesday, December 21.

Ancient cultures didn’t know about the earth’s rotation and orbit, and for people of higher latitudes, winter was a time filled with apprehension. Days were becoming shorter, and the sun was drifting farther south in the midday sky. What if the sun disappeared completely? They would be left in the dark.

After the solstice, however, they had reason to celebrate. Days begin to lengthen. Fear and foreboding were replaced by joy and optimism. Solstice celebrations can be traced to most ancient cultures. It was perhaps the most widely celebrated natural event.

After Wednesday, the days will begin to lengthen toward the longest day of the year – the summer solstice in June.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.