You hear a scream from the kitchen and as you rush towards the sound, you see your housemate standing there with a broom in hand, ready to strike out at a small defenseless mouse. Mice may seem scary or even gross when you find them nesting in your cupboard, but we must not forget the lives they live, the roles they play in maintaining the ecology, and the sacrifices they have made in the field of medical research.
The genus Mus generally refers to any of the thirty-eight species of mice that are native to Eurasia and Africa. They have snout-like noses, lean bodies, long tails and small, sharp claws. The texture of their fur can range from the scaly Pyromys to the velvety shrew-mouse from Sumatra and Java. Mice are nocturnal, and territorial about their spaces. (Source: Britannica)
In almost any terrestrial ecosystem, mice play a very important role as primary consumers. They represent both predator and prey, while being an essential link between plants and carnivores. A multitude of animals, ranging from foxes and snakes to bobcats and bears look to mice for their nutrition.
Let us learn about this furry rodent, all its types, and some important facts and characteristics that make it an interesting subject.
Table of Contents
- Of Mice, Literature and Art
- Mouse Sub-Genuses
- Lab Rats
- Mice as Pets
- Mice in Various Cultures
- Other Mice Species
- What Else is Interesting about Mice?
Although mice are native to only two continents, they have made their way to every land imaginable. This makes them immensely adaptable to any terrain they find themselves on. Other than indoors and underground, mice can also survive in forests, wetlands, open grasslands, near streams and other water sources, and even in elevated mountainous regions.
Contrary to what you may have seen in cartoons, mice do not just eat cheese. Mice are omnivores and live on a diet of grains, seeds, fruit and meat. In fact, the mice that we find in our homes can eat anything we give them. Mice often get into closets and desks to nibble on your clothes and important documents, but that is only to collect raw material for their homes and nests.
From Three Blind Mice to Stuart Little, these furry little friends have had several fictional roles in art in literature. They are sometimes helping Cinderella reach the ball on time by transforming into horses, and other times being greedy and ratty as Templeton in Charlotte’s Web. Whatever human qualities writers associate with them, one thing is for certain: mice always capture interest.
Even now, mice often appear in animated films with human-like qualities. This characterization in film helps us be kinder and gentler to these rodents when we find them in our homes. (Source: The Guardian)
The genus Mus is further subdivided into several sub-genuses based on their appearances, habitats, and lifestyles. The ones you should know about are listed below.
This subgenus is native to South Asia in particular and consists of four species of mice: the Sumatran shrew-like mouse, mayor’s mouse, Gairdiner’s shrew-mouse, and the volcano mouse.
Mus is a subgenus consisting of several different species of mice. These include, but are not limited to:
the little Indian field mouse native to South East Asia,
the sheath-tailed mouse native to Thailand and Laos,
the Mus nitidulus native to Central Myanmar, and
the common house mouse: the most common domesticated specie that has been introduced worldwide.
House mice have several sub species as well that have evolved differently according to their changing habitats.
This subgenus has about eighteen species, all native to sub-Saharan Africa. They can be found in a variety of habitats: sandy deserts, grasslands and tropical forests, swamps and savannahs, and about any kind of terrain that can be found in their native land. The species include the toad mouse found in mountains, the Mahomet mouse, and African pygmy mouse amongst others.
The term Incertae sedis, literally ‘of uncertain placement’ in Latin, refers to a taxonomic classification where the boundaries for division are blurred. This subgenus is home to about five mouse species that cannot be classified elsewhere. (Source: Wikipedia)
If you visit the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Siberia, you will find a bronze statue of a mouse wearing reading glasses, knitting what seems to be the double-helix structure of DNA. This is a well-deserved tribute to all the laboratory rats that have been subjected to medical experimentation over the last hundred years.
Mice have tolerated all sorts of abuse in chemical and genetic testing. Some have even lost their lives for the advancement of science and research.
The reason for choosing mice in genetic experimentation is their varied diet and their ability to reproduce quicker than most mammals. The changes in their DNA can be observed across several generations in a small amount of time and that makes them good research subjects for scientists to study.
With the advent of stricter animal protection laws, especially after the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, experimentation on animals has become more regulated.
This is not exactly a naturally occurring mouse specie, but a name given to those mice who have had one more of their genes ‘deactivated’ by scientists in a laboratory. Doing this gives scientists more knowledge about the specific function of that gene.
Sometimes these deactivated genes can be replaced with artificially constructed ones to modify specific behaviors of the mice. These studies have led to important discoveries in the fields of human genetics and gene modification. (Source: National Human Genome Research Institute)
The most common domesticated specie is the Mus musculus, also commonly known as the house mouse. Even though a lot of people prefer hamsters instead of house mice as their pets, both rodents are excellent companions. Mice usually make loyal and loving pets because of their sociability and minimal upkeep requirements.
Mice are usually kept in cages, and that is why they are convenient for people living in small homes and apartments. Combined with its inexpensive lifestyle, these qualities make mice the perfect companions for people living on any budget. (Source: American Veterinary Medical Association)
Mice in Various Cultures
It may disgust you, but some cultures around the world consider mice to be a tasty snack. Some food experts have even claimed it to be the most delicious meat they have ever tasted.
The Adi tribe from a hilly, remote Indian village celebrates the Unyin-Arang festival on 7th March every year. During the celebrations, mice meat serves as the culinary centerpiece. Sparing you the gory detail, let us just say mice feet and tails are especially appreciated for their flavor.
Similarly, they are considered a food source in Cameroon, China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nigeria, and even New Zealand.
As Gifts and Symbols
An interview with the Adi tribe further revealed that mice are also used as traditional gifts for brides, a lucky charm for a long and healthy married life. Even in some New Zealand towns, mice hold monetary and traditional value. They can be exchanged at weddings and other ceremonies as currency. (Source: BBC)
Other Mice Species
Other than the Mus genus discussed above, there are many species of rodents from other genuses also referred to as mice. Some notable ones are discussed below.
All species from the genus Acomys are referred to as spiny mice. These animals are similar in appearance to mice from genus Mus, except that they have strangely stiff guard hairs in place of fur. Their similarity with hedgehog spines gives them their common name. (Source: Wikipedia)
From the genus Rattus comes the well-known black rat found in crops and fields. They reside in large groups with dominant males, while females are also prominent. They get their nutrition not only from the rice, seeds, and grains found in the fields. They also eat grasshoppers, termites, snails and other bugs. They are readily found in South East Asia, particularly in the Indochina region.
Belonging to the family Dasyuridae, these rodents are mouse-like mammals found in Australia and New Guinea. Their nocturnal habits and carnivorous lifestyle suggests that they are more shrew than mouse. Although they mainly hunt insects and small invertebrates, the broad-footed marsupial mouse is known to eat nectar from flowers.
Other notable species are fat-tailed mice that store all their fat resources in their tails, and the crest-tailed marsupial mouse, whose primary water source is the bodies of its prey.
Some species are also on the endangered animals list. (Source: Britannica)
Species from genus Antechinus share many of their characteristics with mice and are often confused with them by laypersons. Unlike mice, however, these rodents are carnivores that feed on spiders, beetles and their larvae, and other invertebrates. Their nesting habits are either completely on ground-level or exclusively arboreal depending on their species.
An interesting trait in these rodents is the female’s ability to store sperm for up to three days, which can lead to mixed paternity in the litter. They usually produce only one batch of offspring per lifetime. Because breeding occurs only once a year during winter season, the male Antechinus suppresses all its metabolic functions and sheds all excess weight in order to utilize all its energy for reproduction.
The Big-Eared Hopping Mouse
A now-extinct species from genus Notomys, the big-eared hopping mouse of South Western Australia, made morphological and physical adaptations according to its native terrain. For running quickly through sand dunes, these mice developed muscular upper bodies that helped them hop on two legs over long distances.
The large ears and increased agility helped them adapt to the harsher environment, but these mice could not survive feral cat attacks, exotic disease, and drastic habitat changes. The carcass of the last one was found in 1843.
The kangaroo mouse can be found in dry, deserted ecosystems, where they scavenge for seeds and vegetation, and sometimes insects, as food. They live in burrows of gravelly or sandy soil, although they have a preference for the former. They are named after kangaroos owing to their bipedal locomotion and superior jumping ability.
These athletic abilities also help these mice in escaping their natural predators: snakes. Using its especially evolved strength, the kangaroo mouse can aim high kicks and perform tall jumps to evade desert snakes. (Source: National Geographic)
Pebble-mound mice are all small, brown, furry creatures. What is fascinating about them is their atypical nesting behavior. After burrowing below land, these mice cover their homes with small mounds made of pebbles. These structures are a necessary aspect of their social life. Pebble-mound mice have four further types based on areas on origin.
Western pebble-mound mice are found in the Pilbara region of Australia, and Central pebble-mound mice in the Kimberly region. Other types are the Kakadu pebble mice and the ‘delicate’ mouse of the Eastern region, which is called such because of its very small size.
These mice have golden-brown fur. That is why they are also known as Ochrotomys, from the Latin word ‘ochre’ meaning yellow or brown earth pigment. Found in southeastern states of USA, these mice are especially found in areas rich with greenbrier, honeysuckle and red cedar trees.
Golden mice usually inhabit both trees and ground nests. Their choice of nesting depends on the land conditions of their terrain: if the ground is wet and soggy, golden mice must retreat to the trees. Tree nests, however, become restrictive for them when predators attack. Nesting on the ground not only gives them the ground they need to outrun snakes and other predators; it also conserves their energy since they don’t have to run up and down trees with nesting fluff.
One endearing habit of golden mice is their non-territorial nature. They have been known to share their nests with up to eight other mice; both with members of their own kin and unrelated parties.
Pocket mice belong to genus Chaetodipus, home to at least 38 species of mice. They have stiff fur, which can be grey, brown, yellow, or spotted with multiple colors. Found in various regions of the US, mainly Arizona, California and Nevada, these mice usually prefer desert environments where vegetation is sparse.
These mice are aggressively solitary creatures that can burrow through solid rock. They use their teeth to build nests in gravelly, hard soil. For food, they look to grains and seeds that they can store in their cheek pouches like squirrels.
To be clear, flying mice, also known as pygmy scaly-tails, do not actually fly. Their scaly tails are reminiscent of bird wings. One of their species is the long-eared flying mouse which comes from regions of western and central Africa.
Not much is known about them owing to the fact that they are unable to survive in captivity. This makes it difficult for scientists to study them in detail. (Source: Animal Diversity Web)
These little creatures are found throughout the British isle and all its small islands. They usually only live for one breeding season, but if they do survive, they can change their size as required. The young ones are born blind but gain eyesight as they grow older.
Wood mice build complicated underground burrows from moss and grass, complete with a separate food area and nesting chambers. They can be beneficial for humans by feeding on harmful insects found in open grasslands. (Source: The Mammal Society)
Found in Southern Australia, Bolam’s mice are nocturnal and live in burrows like most mice. In fact, they are quite similar in appearance to the house-mouse except for their larger eyes. What sets them apart from others, however, is their ability to survive by extracting water from seeds, the production of highly concentrated urine and feces with low water content – all to survive in climates where water is scarce. (Source: Office of Environment and Heritage)
These mice are closely linked to the previously mentioned wood mice, and are also found in southern Britain. They are expert climbers, which makes them ideally suited for living in forests with tall trees. The female members of the species are continuously pregnant from February to October and produce many litters of offspring in sets of two to eleven. (Source: The Mammal Society)
These very interesting mice are not a distinct species, but a mutation of one. A gene alteration in their DNA leads to their extraordinarily small size, which results in a unique phenomenon. These mice have more than double the lifespan of their contemporaries. They were discovered and studied in the 60’s by many university research centers, but scientists have still not come to any conclusive results about the reasons for their extended lives.
It is speculated that these mice are descendants of laboratory subjects exposed to radiation, but it cannot be ruled out that the mutation was spontaneous.
Scientists suggest that studying these mice extensively might lead to interesting new discoveries about the process of aging. We could even end up learning more about how to slow down the aging process in humans. (Source: NY Times)
What Else is Interesting about Mice?
Mice Tears Are Aphrodisiacs
Male members of the mice genus shed tears to keep their eyes from drying out. These tears contain pheromones which they rub all over their bodies when they groom themselves. Subsequently, this leads to the female mice getting doubly attracted when they pick up the scent of said pheromones. (Source: National Geographic)
Mice Carry Diseases:
Historically, mice have been seen as dirty; carriers of diseases and germs. A horrifying proof of that is the Black Plague of the 14th century that wiped out entire towns and villages of Europe, consuming the lives of about twenty five million people. (Source: National Interest)
They Have Big Appetites
Mice build their homes near places that provide quick access to food. That is why you often find them in your kitchen or in your stored grains. They eat about twenty times a day and have tremendous appetites. (Source: Live Science)
Mice Are Athletic
Sneaking through small holes is not the only quality that makes mice athletic. They can jump, swim, run, and can basically beat you in a triathlon if they ever learnt how to cycle. (Source: Pest World)
They Have an Acute Sense of Smell
The reason mice vibrate their pointed snouts in the air obsessively is because they have a highly developed sense of smell. Mice can use their snouts to find mates, locate predators, and locate food. Because they venture out mainly during the night, their weak eyesight is not much help in their various nocturnal adventures. They use pheromones to convey messages to other mice. (Source: Earth Kind)
Mice Teeth Never Stop Growing
Most mice have sharp canines that keep growing as long as they are alive, growing at a rate of about 0.3 mm a day. One main reason mice annoyingly nibble and gnaw on everything from pipes and plumbing to clothes is their need to chisel down these ever-growing canines to a practical length. (Source: Stack Exchange)
Mice have probably made an enduring bad name for themselves within the human community, and perhaps for good reason. Their disease-spreading role in the Black Death and their notorious habit of invading our living space makes them unpopular. Here’s hoping that reading about mice and their types in such detail will help us understand and appreciate their nature better. And enable us to coexist peacefully together as species.