Dale Fort Blog Number 17

30 04 2013

Mice

The scientific name for the house mouse is Mus domesticus taken from the Roman mus minimus (small mouse).  A Roman rat was mus maximus (big mouse).  The Welsh for mouse is llygod.  The Welsh for rat is llygod fawr (big mouse).

It’s thought that all mammals evolved from a rodent-like common ancestor many millions of years ago.

There are 5 species of mouse in the UK:  The wood or field mouse, the yellow-necked mouse, the common dormouse, the harvest mouse and the one most likely to be found in your house, the house mouse.

Dormice with label

Occasionally, especially in winter you might get wood mice moving in with you.  If you can trap one and keep it reasonably still it’s quite easy to tell the difference between house and wood mice.  Wood mice look more appealing to most people, having very large eyes and a tail as long their head and body.  House mice have small eyes and a shorter, scaly tail

Field mouse with label.jpg

House mouse with label

The dead giveaway is their problem with personal odour.  In short, house mice are smelly.  This is probably mainly because they have virtually no means of storing urine and so rather than releasing a bladderful of the stuff in one place they leave a continuous trail of it wherever they go.  This, together with their tendency to leave faeces everywhere means you probably don’t want them in your kitchen.  Some people believe that the domestication of cats began because ancient humans, plagued by mice and other rodents realised that carnivorous cats would provide a means of biological control.

Harvest mouse with label.jpg

Mice like to be near humans because we provide them with somewhere warm and dry to build a nest and with food. Most commonly they are vegetarian, eating nuts and grains and fruits.  One of the keys to their success though is that they can eat almost anything including the dead bodies of other mice and their own tails.  From personal experience I believe mouse nirvana is reached when they are offered a supply of chocolate.  When I lived at Dale Fort (among the silverfish) I was given a large Easter-egg by a group of students.  I put it on a shelf waiting for Easter.  I opened the box on Easter Sunday to find a hollow silver-paper structure entirely devoid of Easter-egg and some mouse droppings.  They had nibbled their way in through the back of the box, through the foil and eaten the lot from the inside of the wrapper.  There were a few red Smarties left inside but I felt they were best thrown away.  I have occasionally speculated as to whether they missed the red ones because they have no red-detecting eye pigments and they just didn’t see them.

Less well known is the fact that in Zambia and Malawi mice are eaten by humans to this day.  The Romans also kept dormice for food.  They were fattened up and when they went into hibernation were stored in a barrel for consumption over the winter.

Yellow necked mouse with label

 

Mice are not simply a nuisance.  They are the most commonly used mammal in laboratory experiments.  Their genome has been sequenced and there are many homologues for human genes.  (Bits of mouse DNA that resemble closely bits of human DNA).  This means they can be used as mammalian models for the study of human diseases.  They reproduce very quickly and are easy to look after.  This means you can follow several generations in rapid time.

Coming soon:  Nunzilla’s guide to common seaweeds.  Don’t miss it.

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