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Dormice are rodents of the family Gliridae. (This family is also variously called Myoxidae or Muscardinidae by different taxonomists). Dormice are mostly found in Europe, although some live in Africa and Asia. They are particularly known for their long periods of hibernation. Because only one species of dormouse is native to the British Islesmarker, in everyday English usage "dormouse" usually refers to this species (the Hazel Dormouse) rather than to the family as a whole.

Characteristics

Dormice are small for rodents, with a body length of between , and weighing between . They are generally mouse-like in appearance, but with furred, rather than scaly, tails. They are largely but not exclusively arboreal animals, and are agile and well adapted to climbing. Most species are nocturnal. Dormice have an excellent sense of hearing, and signal each other with a range of different vocalisations.

Dormice are omnivorous, typically feeding on fruits, berries, flowers, nuts and insects. Dormice are unique among rodents in that they lack a cecum, a part of the gut used in other species to ferment vegetable matter. Their dental formula is similar to that of squirrels, although they often lack premolars:

Dormice breed once or maybe twice a year, producing litters with an average of four young after a gestation period of 21-32 days. They can live for as long as five years. The young are born hairless, and helpless, and their eyes do not open until about eighteen days after birth. They typically become sexually mature after the end of their first hibernation. Dormice live in small family groups, with home ranges that vary widely between species, and depending on the availability of food.

Hibernation

One of the most notable characteristics of those dormice that live in temperate zones is hibernation. Dormice can hibernate six months out of the year, or even longer if the weather remains sufficiently cool, sometimes waking for brief periods to eat food they had previously stored nearby. During the summer, they accumulate fat in their bodies, to nourish them through the hibernation period.

It is from this trait that they got their name, which comes from Anglo-Norman dormeus, which means "sleepy (one)"; the word was later altered by folk etymology to resemble the word "mouse". The sleepy behaviour of the Dormouse character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland also attests to this trait.

Relationship with humans

The edible dormouse was considered a delicacy in ancient Rome, either as a savoury appetizer or as a dessert (dipped in honey and poppy seeds). The Romans had a special kind of enclosure known as glirarium used to rear dormice for the table. Dormice to this day are eaten in Slovenia. Dormouse fat was used by the Elizabethans to induce sleep.

Evolution

Currently, the earliest fossil evidence of dormouse species comes from Europe in the early Eocene . They appear in Africa in the upper Miocene and only relatively recently in Asia. Many types of extinct dormouse species have been identified. During the Pleistocene, giant dormice the size of large rats, such as Leithia melitensis, lived on the islands of Maltamarker and Sicily.

Classification

The family consists of 34 living species, in three subfamilies and (arguably) 10 genera:

Family: Gliridae

Fossil species



References

  1. Paul Freedman, "Meals that Time Forgot."
  2. BBC News Magazine
  • Holden, M. E.. 2005. Family Gliridae. Pp. 819-841 in Mammal Species of the World a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder eds. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.


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