Note from Frank Chan

Aftur til súgdjór / retur til pattedyr / return to mammals


Faroe mice keep them coming back for more!
It was a dark and stormy night. The Ritan berthed, and two foreigners gingerly moved down the slippery ramp, carrying between them a large metal box. As onlookers gawked, the process was repeated painfully slowly as they strained under the weight of more metal boxes.
Some handshakes, and pleasantries followed. “Who else, but Jens-Kjeld, would be meeting these newcomers?” thought the locals. Soon enough, with a wheelbarrow wobbling up the small hill, the newcomers and the mysterious metal boxes made their way to Jens-Kjeld’s yellow house near the edge of the village.
The Faroes were an unfamiliar place to Émilie and Frank. With naivety they thought they could drive their car onto Ritan (a feat as unlikely as loading a table onto a horse), and buy food from a local store after 6pm! Soon enough, Jens-Kjeld found himself preparing food for these two frozen researchers and slicing bread and salami for their mouse traps.
And the metal boxes? All the Nólsoyars wanted to know what was in them! If the impression they made on first arrival planted any seed of doubt into the Nólsoyars minds about the seriousness of these two visitors, the 80 traps they have brought along showed that they meant business: they would do anything they could, to be the first persons to bring home some living Mus faroensis. Because of this ambitious determination, they became known to all the Nólsoyars and beyond as Drs. Mús (Drs. Mouse).
Over the next two weeks, Drs. Mús followed Jens-Kjeld’s lead, and attracted even more local curiosity: wheelbarrow in hand, they ferried trap after trap across the village, sometimes visiting some remote farmhouses in the howling wind, with spectator sheep looking askant. “Bah! Of course you can trap them!  Take them all home with you!” the villagers would say.  “No, my house doesn’t have any mice.  You can try!” some would say, airily.  “Oh, but if you do find any, just take them. Take them all!”.  Drs. Mús were happy with just a small number of these house mice who found their salami and cheese baited traps irresistible.
Having “graduated” from their experience with Jens-Kjeld, Drs. Mús then braved even stronger wind and harsher elements on an expedition to Mykines island, the westernmost island in the Faroese archipelago. Getting to Mykines is no laughing matter: on this occasion a sudden mountain gust made the helicopter miss its landing – and the nervous calm of the helicopter passengers and crew was betrayed by the hysterical screaming outburst of a local Faroese girl. Fortunately for Drs. Mús, the incredible hospitality of the Mykines islanders helped turned the field expedition into a great success. After arriving perhaps a thousand years ago onboard human ships, a few descendant Mykines mice left the island in style: they became the only mice to have been flown out by helicopter, earning the envy of their cliff-bound cousins.
Unlike most of the house mice worldwide, the mice on Mykines are different and were the key to Drs. Mús Faroe Islands visit.  Mykines mice are unique because they have become free- are no longer dependent on human cohabitation. It is not hard to understand: besides boasting the most vibrant seabird community in the Faroe Islands, Mykines has also seen its human population shrink from roughly 100 people a century ago to as low as 7 people. So, what is so special about these little mice? Why go through all the trouble to collect them from the Faroe Islands? These little creatures are so successful in travelling with migrating humans, they have managed to spread across the entire globe. By land, or by sea, as surely as we peopled the world, they moused it, possibly accompanying a Viking fleet or two (see previous story). In addition to telling us about our own historical roots, the very adaptability of these mice can tell us another story: how they adapt and cope with the many unusual challenges of island life.
Ever since these mice first became known to science, there was something special about them. In describing the mice Mus musculus faroensis, Eagle Clarke wrote that they were “remarkable for their great size, indeed, they are veritable giants, being considerably larger than the type and of any of its numerous geographical races.” (1904) Degerbøl noted their distinctiveness, and went on to speculate that yet another distinct race of mice, from Mykines island (Mus musculus mykinessiensis), were specially adapted for their lifestyle on birdcliffs, “with great agility they jump from ledge to ledge, now and then clinging to the perpendicular mountain wall. They dig their holes in cracks and fissures in the rock-wall or in the sod found on the ledges.” (1942) The Mykines mice are so adept at cliff-living they have abandoned the cozy shelters of the people and become free-living. Wild, like their ancestors, once again.

Such remarkable adaptation is what drew our Drs. Mús, Émilie and Frank, to the Faroes. They wanted to understand the key factors that enable the mice live independently of humans. Has this ability evolved under natural selection, with the wind, rain, and seas sculpting the genes of these mice to become as connected to the Faroe Islands as the Faroese are? Or was it genetic drift, just like some wayward Vikings seeking shelter from the wind, that caused these mice to become distinct due to the sheer remoteness of these islands?
The only way to find out, is to come here, and see for oneself. Better yet, catch some, and let these mice tell us their stories.


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