CANE RATS – Thryonomyidae



The two species in the cane rat family, the greater cane rat and the lesser cane rat, are very similar in appearance, except for the fact that one is larger and heavier than the other. The second-largest rodents in their native continent of Africa after the South African porcupine, the cane rats range in length from 1.3 to 2.6 feet (40.9 to 79.3 centimeters) and in weight from 3.1 to 14.3 pounds (1.4 to 6.5 kilograms). Males are much larger and heavier than females. Cane rats are sturdy-looking animals, with solid, stocky bodies, short, brown, bristly, scaly tails, and small ears. Their speckled fur is sharp-ended and coarse, and can be any shade between grayish and yellowish brown. Cane rats have white lips, chins, and throats, with large, chisel-like incisor teeth that grow continuously. The upper teeth are grooved and bright orange. Their muzzles are squared and padded at the nose. These rodents have short, thick legs with heavily padded feet and straight, powerful claws with five digits in front and four in back. Their skin is very thin and tears easily, although it also heals quickly. Likewise, the tail will break off easily if the animal is caught by it. Sexually mature, those ready to mate, cane rats have orange-tinted fur in their genital areas. Cane rats do not seem to see well, but their senses of hearing and small are keen. Despite their heavy appearance, they are extremely fast and agile creatures.


Both species are native to Africa, where they occupy habitats south of the Sahara Desert. They may be found everywhere in west, central, and southern Africa all the way down to the eastern Cape in South Africa.


Although they look similar, the greater and lesser cane rats prefer different environments. The greater species is semi-aquatic and searches out marshes and reed beds near rivers and streams, while the lesser species looks for dry ground in moist savannas, or grasslands. Both animals are excellent swimmers and require tall grasses for hiding and foraging purposes.


Cane rats are herbivores, plant eaters, and eat a wide variety of grasses and other plant matter, as well as fruits, nuts, bark, and cultivated crops. Cane rats ferment their food in a special organ called the cecum (SEE-kum) to help digest it. They produce two kinds of feces: hard and soft pellets. Both are excreted, but the animals eat the soft pellets to extract any nutrients remaining in them.


Cane rats earned their African nickname of “grass cutter” because of their method of eating: after using their powerful incisors to cut grasses at their base, the animals take the bunch of grass in their forefeet, sit upright on their haunches, and begin to feed the grass into their mouths slowly, cutting it up into small bits. When eating and when relaxed, they make soft grunting noises.

Primarily nocturnal, cane rats create and use narrow trails through the grass and reeds to move around their territories. Biologists think they live in groups of no more than twelve individuals. Males, who live with their young and a few mature females, do not tolerate the presence of other mature males, and aggressively defend their family groups. Males fight by pressing their padded noses together until one eases up on the pressure, at which point his opponent may swiftly swing his rump around to knock the weaker rat off balance.

Despite their well-developed claws, cane rats use burrowing only as a last resort for shelter and even then would rather use abandoned porcupine or aardvark burrows or holes in stream banks cause by erosion if dense vegetation for hiding is absent. Cane rats have been observed gnawing on rocks, pieces of tusk, and bones, presumably to sharpen their teeth.

The cane rats mate with multiple partners throughout the year, although primarily during the rainy season when more food is available. In captivity, pairs reproduce at any time of the year. Pregnant females create a special nursery nest, carving out a shallow depression in a sheltered area and using leaves and grass to line it. She gestates, is pregnant, for 137 to 172 days, and may have two litters of one to eight pups each year. The pups are born with open eyes and are completed furred. They nurse for about a month, but stay with the adults until they reach sexual maturity at five months of age, when males begin to show aggression toward each other.


The meat of both cane rat species is highly prized as an excellent and good-tasting protein source in an often harsh environment. Organized hunts for the animals are frequently held. Some farmers have even started to domesticate “microherds” of them, and families sometimes rely on sale of their meat for income. In Ghana, the price of cane rat meat reportedly surpasses that of beef, sheep, and pork. Farmers are often angered by the rats’ frequent raids on their crops, and encourage pythons to come into their fields to feed on the animals.


Abundant in all areas with suitable habitat, neither the lesser nor the greater cane rat is threatened.