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Cane Rats: Thryonomyidae

Greater Cane Rat (thryonomys Swinderianus): Species Account

Physical characteristics: The larger of the two cane rat species, the (male) greater cane rat ranges in length from 26.1 to 30.9 inches (67.0 to 79.2 centimeters) and in weight from 11 to 14.3 pounds (5 to 6.5 kilograms), although there are reports of these animals weighing as much as 19.8 pounds (9 kilograms). Females are generally smaller. Greater cane rats have powerful, stocky bodies, massive heads, and small, broad, fur-covered ears. Perhaps their most striking feature is their gigantic, bright-orange incisor teeth. The animals have thick, coarse, pointed hair over its body that varies in shades of brown on top and much lighter fur underneath, with orange-tinted fur in the genital areas of mature adults. The forefeet are smaller than the back feet, but both have large, well-formed claws. The forefeet have five digits, but the first and fifth are very small. There are reports of captive greater cane rats living for four years or more.

The greater cane rat is a good swimmer, and prefers to live in marshes and reed beds near rivers and streams. (© Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Cobris. Reproduced by permission.)

Geographic range: The greater cane rat is present in almost all countries west of the Sahara Desert except in areas of rainforest, dry scrubland, or desert. Their existence has been recorded in Gambia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Habitat: Greater cane rats favor low-lying, swampy places along streams and riverbanks where there are dense patches of reeds and tall grasses.

Diet: This species eats primarily the tender new shoots of elephant grass, pennisetum grass, kikuyu (kee-KUH-yuh), and buffalo or guinea grass, along with the plant roots and stems. They feed on bark, fruits, and nuts in more limited quantities. The greater cane rat also eagerly forages for vegetables in cultivated gardens and are voracious consumers of such crops as cane sugar, maize, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, millet, peanuts, sorghum, wheat, and cassava.

Behavior and reproduction: Mostly nocturnal, this polygamous (puh-LIH-guh-mus) cane rat lives alone or in small family groups with a dominant male, several adult females, and their young. They startle easily and run immediately for the closest water, using their excellent swimming, speed, and agility to outmaneuver predators. Females gestate for 152 to 156 days, giving birth to two to four pups on average, although the range is from one to six.

Greater cane rats and people: Like their smaller cousins, the greater cane rat is viewed by humans as both an important food source and a serious threat to cultivated crops.

Conservation status: These animals are abundant in all locations with habitat suitable for them, and not threatened. ∎



De Graff, G. The Rodents of Southern Africa. Durban and Pretoria: Butterworths, 1981.

Mills, M., et al. The Complete Book of South African Mammals. Cape Town: Struik Winchester, 1997.

National Research Council. Microlivestock: Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future. Washington, DC: National Academic Press, 1991.

Nowak, Ronald M. "Cane Rats." In Walker's Mammals of the World Online 5.1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. http://www.www.press.jhu.edu/books/walkers_mammals_of_the_world/rodentia (accessed on June 15, 2004).


Van der Merwe, M. "Breeding Season and Breeding Potential of the Greater Cane Rat Thryonomys swinderianus in Captivity in South Africa." South African Journal of Zoology 34, no. 2 (1999): 69–73.

Web sites:

Animals Online. "Great Cane Rat Thryonomys swinderianus: Fact Sheet." http://www.animals-online.be (accessed on June 15, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceMammalsCane Rats: Thryonomyidae - Physical Characteristics, Behavior And Reproduction, Cane Rats And People, Greater Cane Rat (thryonomys Swinderianus): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RA\NGE, HABITAT, DIET, CONSERVATION STATUS