Gambian pouched rat

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Gambian pouched rat
Cricetomys gambianus as a captive pet.jpg
Cricetomys gambianus as a captive pet
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Nesomyidae
Genus: Cricetomys
C. gambianus
Binomial name
Cricetomys gambianus

The Gambian pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), also known commonly as the African giant pouched rat, is a species of nocturnal pouched rat of the giant pouched rat genus Cricetomys, in the family Nesomyidae. The species is among the largest muroids in the world, growing up to about 0.9 m (3 ft) long, including the tail, which makes up half of its total length.[2] It is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging geographically from Senegal to Kenya and from Angola to Mozambique (although it is absent from much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Emin's pouched rat is present) and in altitude from sea level to 2,000 m (6,600 ft).[1]

The Gambian pouched rat is sometimes kept as a pet, but some have escaped from captivity and become an invasive species in Florida.[3] In the United States, the CDC and the FDA now ban the importation of this species because it is blamed for the 2003 outbreak of monkeypox.


Skull of a Gambian pouched rat

The Gambian pouched rat has very poor eyesight, so it depends on its senses of smell and hearing.[4] Its name comes from the large, hamster-like pouches in its cheeks. It is not a true rat, but is part of an African branch of muroid rodents. It typically weighs between 1.0 and 1.4 kg (2.2 and 3.1 lb).[2] In its native Africa, the pouched rat lives in colonies of up to 20, usually in forests and thickets, but also commonly in termite mounds. It is omnivorous, feeding on vegetables, insects, crabs, snails, and other items, but apparently prefers palm fruits and palm kernels.[citation needed]

It has cheek pouches like a hamster, which allow it to gather up several kilograms of nuts per night for storage underground. It has been known to stuff its pouches so full of date palm nuts so as to be hardly able to squeeze through the entrance of its burrow.[citation needed] The burrow consists of a long passage with side alleys and several chambers, one for sleeping and the others for storage. The Gambian pouched rat reaches sexual maturity at 5–7 months of age. It has up to four litters every nine months, with up to six offspring in each litter. Males are territorial and tend to be aggressive when they encounter one another.

Diagnostic use[edit]

The Gambian pouched rat is currently being used in experiments at Cornell University in the USA to investigate its usefulness in the detection of tuberculosis in human sputum samples.[5]

Invasive species[edit]

A Gambian pouched rat killed in the Florida Keys

Gambian pouched rats have become an invasive species on Grassy Key in the Florida Keys,[6] after a private breeder allowed the animals to escape.[7] This outsized African rodent is also believed to be responsible for the 2003 Midwest monkeypox outbreak in the United States, after spreading it to prairie dogs that were purchased as pets. In 2003, the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an order preventing the importation of the rodents following the first reported outbreak of monkeypox. Around 20 individuals were affected.[8]

Ability to detect land mines and tuberculosis by scent[edit]

A Tanzanian social enterprise founded by two Belgians, APOPO, trains Gambian pouched rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis with their highly developed sense of smell. The trained pouched rats are called HeroRATS. The rats are far cheaper to train than mine-detecting dogs; a rat requires $7,300 for nine months of training, whereas a dog costs about $25,000 for training.[9][10]

In 2020, a Hero Rat named Magawa (2013-2022)[11] received a PDSA Gold Medal, the animal equivalent of the George Cross, becoming the first rat to receive the award since the charity began honouring animals 77 years ago. Before retiring in 2021, Magawa detected 71 landmines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance, clearing over 2,421,880 sq ft (225,000 m2) of land in Cambodia, preventing many injuries and deaths, in his 5-year career.[12][13][14][15] Magawa died from natural causes at the age of 8 in 2022.[11]


  1. ^ a b Kennerley, R. (2019). "Cricetomys gambianus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2019: e.T112169507A50534302. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-1.RLTS.T112169507A50534302.en. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  2. ^ a b Kingdon, J. (1997). The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. pp. 199–200. ISBN 0-12-408355-2.
  3. ^ "Keeping and caring for Gambian pouched rats as pets". The Spruce Pets. Retrieved 2021-01-28.
  4. ^ Olude, M.A.; Ogunbunmi, T.K.; Olopade, J.O.; Ihunwo, A.O. (2014). "The olfactory bulb structure of African giant rat (Cricetomys gambianus, Waterhouse 1840) I: Cytoarchitecture". Anatomical Science International. 89 (4): 224–231. doi:10.1007/s12565-014-0227-0. PMID 24469950. S2CID 25811366.
  5. ^ "Pouched rats sniff for land mines and medical samples". Radio National The Science Show. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 18 May 2019. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  6. ^ "More huge Gambian rats found on Grassy Key". 25 March 2012. Archived from the original on 2012-03-28.
  7. ^ "Florida tries to wipe out cat-sized African rats". Reuters. 2007.
  8. ^ Conlon, Michael (2008-10-06). "Kids want an exotic pet? Ask your doctor first". Reuters. Retrieved 2008-10-06.
  9. ^ Poling, A.; Weetjens, B.; Cox, C.; Beyene, N.; Durgin, A.; Mahoney, A. (2011). "Tuberculosis detection by giant African pouched rats". The Behavior Analyst. U.S. National Institutes of Health. 34 (1): 47–54. doi:10.1007/BF03392234. PMC 3089413. PMID 22532730.
  10. ^ "Giant rats trained to sniff out tuberculosis in Africa". National Geographic.
  11. ^ a b "Magawa, the landmine-sniffing hero rat, dies aged eight". BBC News. 2022-01-11. Retrieved 2022-01-11.
  12. ^ "Magawa, a landmine-detecting rat, is retiring after five years of life-saving work in Cambodia". Sky News. Retrieved 2021-06-05.
  13. ^ "Meet the gold medal-winning rodent". BBC News. Retrieved 2021-01-28.
  14. ^ Ng, Kate (25 September 2020). "Cambodia landmine detection rat awarded miniature gold medal for 'lifesaving bravery'". The Independent. Archived from the original on November 26, 2020.
  15. ^ "'Hero rat' Magawa retires from Cambodian bomb sniffing career". Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. June 5, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

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