Field of Science

Taxon of the Week: Nothing to do with Teapots

This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.
--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The dormouse was an animal that I had heard of long before I knew what one actually was, solely as a result of its appearance in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a book I read countless times as a young'un (the image at the top, a reproduction of one of John Tenniel's original illustrations for Alice, comes from here). Those of you who have read the book will recall that the main characteristic of the Dormouse was its continually falling asleep - doubtless because, Alice's Adventures being set in July, it was time the dormouse should have been hibernating.

Okay, the picture's obviously posed (if not photoshopped) using a hibernating dormouse, but sometimes cuteness is irresistable and I thought it might draw a larger audience among Japanese schoolgirls (image from the Cellar). Dormice (Gliridae*) are a smallish family of mostly Palaearctic rodents. The name is supposed to come from the same source as the word "dormant" and refers to the hibernation by species in colder climates. Dormice do resemble rather solidly built mice, but features of the internal anatomy, supported by molecular data, indicate that Gliridae are not, in fact, close relatives of the Muroidea (mice and rats proper) but are more closely related to the Sciuroidea (squirrels), their mouse-like features having arisen convergently (Maier et al., 2002). The relatively long fossil record of Gliridae, dating back to the Eocene, also supports a more basal position for the family.

*Some references will use the name Myoxidae for the same family. There may also be a single family Gliridae, or a superfamily Gliroidea containing two families, depending on whether the specialised Selevinia (see below) is regarded as belonging to a separate family or as a derived member of the Gliridae.

Dormice are seemingly fairly omnivorous. Animal Diversity Web describes their diet as "feeding on fruit and nuts and also eating invertebrates, birds and their eggs, and sometimes other rodents". One rather unique species, the rare Selevinia betpakdalensis of Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan (shown in an illustration from Animal Diversity Web above), has a highly reduced dentition (see image below from here) and is mostly insectivorous.

The tendency of hibernating species to stack on the fat in preparation for winter gives rise to the common name of the European species Glis glis - the edible dormouse. This species was eaten in Imperial Rome, though the image below (from The Daily Mail) suggests that it may have been a little difficult to get the apple into its mouth. The Old Foodie has a recipe for stuffed dormouse taken from a translation of Apicius*, while Roman History Books and More also gives a quote from Petronius referring to dormice coated with poppy seeds and honey. Tasty!

*I'm a little confused about the "laser" that is supposed included in the stuffing. Is this a misprint for "laver" (an edible seaweed), or is there actually a vegetable by that name?


Maier, W., P. Klingler & I. Ruf. 2002. Ontogeny of the medial masseter muscle, pseudo-myomorphy, and the systematic position of the Gliridae (Rodentia, Mammalia). Journal of Mammalian Evolution 9 (4): 253-269.


  1. The "laser" (aka laserpitium or lasar) was apparently the same as the mysterious and now extinct silphion, a kind of giant fennel that grew in Libya. As the real silphion was already extinct at the time the recipes attributed to Apicius were compiled, asafoetida (Ferula asa-foetida L.) was used as a substitute. A related plant (Laserpitium latifolium L.) is now known as laserwort.

  2. Mmm honey basted sesame dormice in a devil's dung reduction sauce! I always keep my glirarium well-stocked.

    Lars beat me to it, but there is a nice discussion of the etymology of the roman "laser" at language hat .

  3. What are those spines on the back of the mandibles? Do they have to do with cheek pouches?

  4. Hmmm.... Beats me, I'm afraid. i am far, far from being an expert on vertebrate osteology.


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