Diversity in similar-looking rodents: mice, rats, voles


There’s diversity in similar-looking rodents. Here’s what sets mice, rats, and voles apart.

House Mouse, smart and agile

House mice, Mus musculus, are athletes that can jump 12 inches (30 cm) high or 8 feet (2.4 m) down, run up vertical surfaces, squeeze through 1/4-inch (6.4 mm) holes, cling and walk upside down, and swim. And they’re smart. Their learning ability is more than just an awareness of cause and effect. They’re masters at finding their way through mazes and can be trained to perform tricks and tasks, even as a group. Scientists have now made lab mice even brainier. Watch out, world! More about House Mice

A House Mouse clinging to a colorful cable.

House Mouse displaying its agility (© Lashin / Shutterstock)

Field Mice: not what you might expect

The term “Field Mouse” is often used to describe outdoor-dwelling mice, but it’s not as simple as it sounds—more than sixty species in the genus Microtus fall under the category of field mice. However, there actually is one official “Field Mouse,” and that’s the Meadow Vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. These little fellows weigh about twice as much as their House Mouse cousins (see further down). Now, here’s the twist—field mice aren’t mice at all! They’re more closely related to muskrats and lemmings. So, next time you spot a field mouse, remember you might be looking at a distant cousin of the mighty muskrat!

Deer Mouse standing on a desk and eating a chocolate bar.

This Deer Mouse, Peromyscus spp., found its way indoors! (Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)

Rats: cousins to mice

Rats are the larger and heartier relatives of mice, with a length ranging from 9 to 11 inches (23–28 cm) or more, tails included. They have thicker, coarser fur, and their tails are scaly and longer in proportion to their bodies. These creatures are known for their resourcefulness and ability to adapt to various environments, whether urban alleys or outdoor landscapes.

A rat standing on bare ground.

Rat, Rattus spp., (Airwolfhound / Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Voles: more than just meadow mice

Voles are often mistaken for mice due to their resemblance. However, they belong to a different subfamily than mice, known as Arvicolinae. Voles sport short legs, short tails, small eyes, and small ears. They grow to be about 4 to 8 inches (10–20 cm) long, tail included. Voles make their homes in burrows with numerous exits and primarily feed on roots and bulbs, which can occasionally harm plants. Yet, they play a crucial role in soil nutrient dispersion and serve as prey for other wildlife, balancing the delicate web of nature.

Side view of a Meadow Vole standing on the ground.

Meadow Vole (David McCorquodale / iNaturalist (CC BY 2.0)

In your yard: moles and shrews  

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