The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Using mice to track human migration to Alaska

Researcher asking people to trap and clip the ears of invasive rodent


File photo

A rare creature in Alaska: mus musculus, also known as the house mouse.

The Valdez Museum is acting as a middleman for an unusual research project that asks people to donate the ears of house mice to track migration to Alaska.

House mice, of the species mus muculus, are rare and non-indigenous to Alaska, but they do exist according to Camille Mangiaratti, a researcher at the Searle Lab at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. According to a press release from the lab, the research hopes to "...use genetic analysis of Alaskan house mice to further nuance the complex human colonization history of the region."

In theory, mice travel with people, and migration of humans can be traced by the DNA origins of mice.

"They're a little sneaky," Mangiaratti said in a telephonic interview. The furry invaders can be found mostly in barns and large garages she added. "We know they go as far north as Fairbanks."

Native voles and shrews are the most commonly seen rodents that sometimes cohabitate with humans in Alaska.

"Probably one of the more quirky unsolicited requests we've had," Andrew Goldstein, the museum's curator said in an interview earlier this month. "The researchers' project kind of depends on non-indigenous species."

Anyone with access to dead mice is asked to clip the ears of the rodent and bring the unusual samples to the Valdez Museum.

"For this research, the Searle Lab will be relying on the cooperation and generosity of community members willing to provide samples from their own homes and businesses," the lab said in a press release. "Whether your cat is an expert mouse hunter, or you've recently decided to trap the mice in your barn, the lab will make good use of your former pests!"

Mangiaratti said the lab only needs a small sample from any dead mice found, such as an ear clipping, which can be put in a Ziploc bag and a note stating where and when the sample was collected. Then drop it off at the museum.

"We've got a regular freezer," Goldstein said. "Clip its ears and put it in a sealed Ziploc bag. I can't emphasize the sealed part enough."

Goldstein said no mice ear DNA donations have been collected in Valdez.

Courtesy ADF&G

Meadow Vole

"We haven't gotten anything in yet," he said. "I put a post on Facebook. That's really the extent of what I've been able to do to get the word out."

According to the press release, mice have tagged along and lived with humans and have been brought all over the world as stowaways and pests. Genetic analysis of a modern mouse's mitochondrial DNA can determine its geographic origin, and therefore that of its human host, too. Analysis of mouse genetic signatures help link contemporary human groups to their original populations, clarifying past human migratory events – a technique which is especially helpful when these events are poorly understood or marred by inaccuracies and biases.


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