Species

How the house mouse tamed itself

tiny mouse skull
The tiny molars in this skull help tell a tale of mice and men, and how humans transitioned from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles.

Got a mouse in the house? Blame yourself. Not your housekeeping, but your species. Humans never intended to live a mouse-friendly life. But as we moved into a settled life, some animals — including a few unassuming mice — settled in, too. In the process, their species prospered — and took over the world.

The rise and fall of the house mouse’s fortunes followed the stability and instability of the earliest human settlements, a new study shows. By analyzing teeth from ancient mice and comparing the results to modern rodents hanging out near partially settled groups, scientists show that when humans began to settle down, one mouse species seemed to follow. When those people moved on, another species moved in. The findings reveal that human settlement took place long before agriculture began, and that vermin didn’t require a big storehouse of grain to thrive off of us.

Between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago (a time called the Natufian period), people began to form small stone settlements in what is now Israel and Jordan. They were not yet farming or storing grain, but they were living in a single place for a season or two, and coming back to that place relatively often. Those early settlers changed the ecosystem of the world around them — presenting new opportunities for local flora and fauna.

Lior Weissbrod, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, started his career wanting to search for clues to the history of animal-human relationships. He was especially interested in animal remains. But, he admits, mouse teeth weren’t exactly his first choice. “[At] the site I was going to work on, the remains of larger animals were already studied,” he says. “I was left with the small mammals.”

Small mammals have even smaller teeth. The largest mouse molars are only about 1 millimeter long. This meant a lot of time sifting dirt through very fine mesh for Weissbrod. He collected 372 mouse teeth from the dirt of five different archaeological sites in modern-day Israel and Jordan, with remains dating from 11,000 to 200,000 years ago. He gave the teeth to his colleague Thomas Cucchi of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, who developed a technique to classify the mouse teeth by species based on tiny differences in their shape.

A mouse skull (middle) sits between a partial cat skull and an Israeli coin. A full mouse skull is only about the size of quarter, and one of its molars is only 1 millimeter long.

The first human…

Researchers Discover New Species of Giant Spider

Tiny, dainty spiders no bigger than a Tic-Tac probably won’t send your blood pressure rising. But the 4-inch-long, red-fanged Sierra Cacachilas wandering spider (Califorctenus cacachilensis), recently named by researchers at the San Diego Natural History Museum and Mexico’s Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, is another story.

The species was first located in 2013 in a mountain range in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Researchers, including field entomologist Jim Berrian, came across evidence of an “abnormally big” shed…

New Pistol Shrimp Species Named After Pink Floyd

A team of scientists from universities in the UK, the US, and Brazil have described a new species of pistol shrimp in the journal Zootaxa. They named it after their favorite band, because it resembles them in a couple of ways.

Researchers have named a sonically super-powered shrimp after Pink Floyd, because of its bright colour and pistol-quick ability to blast enemies…

Resurrecting Extinct Species Could Kill Off Endangered Species, Study Finds

Article Image

Life on Earth is likely facing its sixth mass extinction. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 150 to 200 species of plant, insect, bird or mammal become extinct every day – about 1,000 times the “natural rate,” according to some biologists.

So how can we stop extinction?

One solution scientists have been developing for decades is de-extinction — the process of resurrecting extinct species through genetic engineering. The idea was made popular when an ancient mosquito with a bellyful of dinosaur DNA enabled the resurrection of a Tyrannosaurus rex in 1993’s Jurassic Park. But now that de-extinction could soon be a viable option for biodiversity conservation, some researchers are saying it could threaten extant endangered species.

An article published recently in Natural Ecology and Evolution explains how spending money to resurrect extinct species would reduce already-strained conservation resources for currently endangered species.

A dinosaur attendant emerges from a shipping container surrounded by dinosaurs during the 'Jurassic World'.
A dinosaur attendant emerges from a shipping container surrounded by dinosaurs during the ‘Jurassic World’. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

“On one hand, we can bring back the dead and right past wrongs,” study co-author Joseph Bennett, a conservation biologist at Carleton University in Canada, said to Popular Science. “On the other hand, there are many species going extinct every year, and our resources to help save them are severely limited.”

The study predicts how much money it would take to conserve a handful of resurrected species by looking at the real conservation costs of similar endangered species in New Zealand and New South Wales. Even though the estimates didn’t factor in the costs of actually resurrecting the species, the study found that conserving resurrected species would be significantly more expensive than conserving endangered species.

‘Hey Bill Nye, Which Extinct Animal Would You Like to See Alive Again?’ Bill Nye

Play Video

Play

Mute

Current Time 0:00

/

Duration Time 0:00

Loaded: 0%

Progress: 0%

Stream TypeLIVE

Remaining Time -0:00

Playback Rate

1

  • Chapters

Chapters

  • descriptions off, selected

Descriptions

  • subtitles off, selected

Subtitles

  • captions settings, opens captions settings dialog
  • captions off, selected

Captions

Audio Track

Fullscreen

This is a modal window.

Caption Settings Dialog

Beginning of dialog window. Escape will cancel and close the window.

TextColorWhiteBlackRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyOpaqueSemi-TransparentBackgroundColorBlackWhiteRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyOpaqueSemi-TransparentTransparentWindowColorBlackWhiteRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyTransparentSemi-TransparentOpaque

Font Size50%75%100%125%150%175%200%300%400%

Text Edge StyleNoneRaisedDepressedUniformDropshadow

Font FamilyProportional Sans-SerifMonospace Sans-SerifProportional SerifMonospace SerifCasualScriptSmall Caps

DefaultsDone

‘Hey Bill Nye, Which Extinct Animal Would You Like to See Alive Again?’

Bill-nye-hs

Bill Nye

The Science Guy

01:53

Invasive species, climate change threaten Great Lakes

zebra mussels
BAD NEIGHBORS Zebra mussels (shown) and other invasive species are just one of many threats to the Great Lakes’ ecosystems, as detailed in a new book.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Dan Egan
W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95

Every summer, people flock to the Great Lakes to swim and fish in the seemingly infinite waters and hike along the idyllic shores. But an ominous undercurrent flows just out of sight. Below the water’s surface rages an environmental catastrophe 200 years in the making.

In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan describes how the lakes’ natural history gave way to an unnatural one. From the effects of global trade and urbanization to climate change, the book offers an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) account of the abuses the lakes have endured.

Scars left by retreating glaciers and a failed continental rift, lakes Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior are more like inland seas, holding about 20 percent of Earth’s surface freshwater. The lakes were mostly isolated…

Number of species depends how you count them

Hercules beetles
DRAWING LINES Scientists sometimes have difficulty determining whether organisms, such as these Hercules beetles, are members of different species. Genetic analysis alone may divide populations into species that don’t exist by other biological criteria.

Genetic methods for counting new species may be a little too good at their jobs, a new study suggests.

Computer programs that rely on genetic data alone split populations of organisms into five to 13 times as many species as actually exist, researchers report online January 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These overestimates may muddy researchers’ views of how species evolve and undermine conservation efforts by claiming protections for species that don’t really exist, say computational evolutionary biologist Jeet Sukumaran and evolutionary biologist L. Lacey Knowles.

The lesson, says Knowles, “is that we shouldn’t use genetic data alone” to draw lines between species.

Scientists have historically used data about organisms’ ecological distribution, appearance and behavior to classify species. But the number of experts in taxonomy is dwindling, and researchers have turned increasingly to genetics to help them draw distinctions. Large genetic datasets and powerful computer programs can quickly sort out groups that have become or are in the process of becoming different species. That’s especially important in analyzing organisms for which scientists don’t have much ecological data, such as insects in remote locations or recently extinct organisms.

Knowles and Sukumaran, both of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, examined a commonly used computer analysis method, called multispecies coalescent, which picks out genetic differences among individuals that have arisen recently in evolutionary time. Such differences could indicate that a population of organisms is becoming a separate species. The researchers used a set of known species and tested the program’s ability to correctly predict…