Smoky mouse: all paws on deck parents

Names: Smoky mouse (Pseudomys fumeus). Indigenous name: Koonoom.

Size: Length: head and body including the tail 180–250mm. Weight: 25-86g.

Diet: Omnivore – seeds, fruits, invertebrates, hypogeal fungi, and flowers.

Habitat: Sclerophyll forests, heathland and open-forests, sometimes ferny gullies, from the coast to sub-alpine regions in south-east Australia.

Conservation status: Endangered.

Superpower: Tiny architects! Smoky mice build complex, multichambered burrow systems up to 25 metres long. Living in closely bonded family units, they work as a team to kit-out their impressive digs with elaborate nests.

Smoky mouse. Credit kristen abicaire 2 850
Smoky mouse. Credit: Kristen Abicair

Smoky mice are no ordinary mice. For decades, these shy creatures have gone undetected in areas where they once occurred. They certainly don’t occur in plague proportions like the invasive house mouse. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Females only have four teats to raise small litters of one-to-four pups. They breed seasonally, from spring to autumn, when the weather and resources are just right. They occur naturally in only few locations in NSW and Victoria.

You will not find smoky mice near houses or agricultural properties. They prefer peace and quiet, living in small groups of one male and up to five females, away from human disturbances. They do not smell, or leave messy trails like introduced rodents, and they are extremely difficult to locate in the wild. Because of their elusive, nocturnal nature, there are very few studies on the ecology of the species, which makes conservation planning difficult.

Populations of smoky mice have been declining and disappearing for decades. Their biggest threats are cats and foxes, habitat destruction, and deforestation. To help save the smoky mouse from extinction, conservationists are trialling translocation into predator-proofed sanctuaries. Two captive breeding programs were established as a crucial step in supplying animals for conservation translocations, and for learning more of the species’ ecology. What we have since learnt about the behaviour and breeding ecology of the smoky mouse is incredible and heart-warming.

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Using invisible-wavelength infrared nest-cams, we’ve been able to secretly study smoky mice at their most intimate. Mate pairs form very close bonds and, once bonded, rarely spend more than a few minutes apart. They share food, build nests and burrows cooperatively, and spend much of their time selflessly grooming each other from head to toe (literally, grooming each other’s toes!). When a litter is born, mum is very protective and may kick dad out of the nest for a night or two. Dad will check in occasionally, maybe bring in some nest material, but he’ll sleep in separate quarters until mum is ready. Soon, they are all snuggling together as a family unit.

Both mum and dad share in supervising the pups and organising the nest. When a second litter comes along, the older pups act as babysitters, often sitting with the new litter and upkeeping the nest while mum and dad are off foraging.

A smoky mouse among leaf litter
Smoky mouse. Credit: Kristen Abicair

Research is ongoing, and our understanding of this enigmatic species continues to improve. This helps inform critical conservation planning, such as appropriate site selection and demographic and genetic management for translocations. Wild releases have begun at two separate locations and researchers hope to establish and monitor growing populations in these well-managed areas. 

Conservation efforts for the smoky mouse are a collaboration between multiple organisations, including NSW and ACT governments, the University of Canberra, Zoos Victoria, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and the private sector. We hope the public becomes increasingly aware of the uniqueness of our native rodents, and the valuable role they play in our natural ecosystems.

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