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gerbil (jûrˈbĭl) [key], small desert rodent found throughout the hot arid regions of Africa and Asia. Also known as sand rats, gerbils have large eyes and powerful, elongated hind limbs upon which they can spring. Gerbils are 3 to 5 in. (7.6–12.7 cm) long, excluding the long tufted tail, and are sandy, gray, brown, or reddish in color with white underparts. Most species are nocturnal, and all live in burrows. Their diet consists of seeds and grains; they also eat desert plants, from which they obtain almost all the water they need. With the exception of a few species, gerbils tend to hoard food. In recent years gerbils have become popular as house pets. They are odorless, easy to raise, and usually gentle. Females may bear as many as 15 litters in a lifetime; each litter may contain up to 10 young. Gerbils are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Rodentia, family Cricetidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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