Smallest Zoo Residents May Become Big Environmental Indicators

   Associate Curator Nancy Nill examines a baby Perdido Key beach mouse.

The smallest residents at the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society are five Perdido Key beach mice babies, estimated to have been born in December 2013. On Wednesday, February 19, 2014, Zoo staff members examined each baby mouse and determined there are three male and two female baby mice, all from one breeding pair. Conservation of the dunes that the endangered Perdido Key beach mice live in helps protect residents and structures near beach coastlines from the effects of hurricanes. The mice burrow in sand dunes, so their presence indicates the dunes are strong, and thus more likely to protect homes from storms.

The Zoo’s Perdido Key Beach Mouse Captive Breeding & Reintroduction Program was established after wild mice populations were decimated following hurricanes. The captive population continues to provide a source of beach mice to augment the wild population, if needed, and they were used in 2010 to re-establish a wild population at the west end of Perdido Key.

“Every Perdido Key beach mice litter is a wildlife conservation success,” said Nancy Nill, Associate Curator for the Zoo. “Although these mice are small, their existence in nature is no less important.”

“It can be challenging to recognize the importance of an animal as little as a mouse,” continued Nill. “We hope that by putting them in context with their environmental role, people will understand how one species could have a large impact.”

The Zoo’s baby beach mice were spotted on a video monitoring recording on January 22, 2014. Baby mice typically do not emerge from burrows until after four weeks of age, so it is estimated that these mice were born on approximately December 22, 2013. Zoo staff will take skin samples from the babies’ ears, to be analyzed in genetic testing.

Beach mice are small nocturnal rodents who spend daylight hours in burrows they create in sand dunes and are dependent on undisturbed beaches for their survival.  Because of habitat loss and mortality from feral animals, Perdido Key beach mice are considered an endangered species.  The beach mouse population at Perdido Key, a small strip of land that straddles the Alabama-Florida border, was nearly wiped out in the mid-1990s when hurricanes Erin and Opal ravaged Perdido Key’s beaches. In September 2004, as Hurricane Ivan was approaching the Florida-Alabama coast, staff from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) removed eight mice from the wild, including a pregnant female.  These animals became the founders of the current captive population in the event that wild mice disappeared altogether. 

In the past, mice populations have declined following strong hurricanes to as few as a few dozen individuals, but now the populations is believed to exceed 1,000 animals, thanks in part to the release of captive-born mice from zoos. While individual populations appear to be growing, the Perdido Key beach mouse will probably never make it off the endangered species list because of continued habitat loss, predation by feral animals and because their natural habitat is subject to occasional catastrophic storms.

For information on living with beach mice, and eight things you can do to help conserve the species, visit this link from FWC:

Category Tag(s): Zoo News

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