Why walk when you can hop? Australia's five species of hopping mice have long, narrow hind legs that allow them to hop quickly away from danger, and to dive down into their burrows.
The species are: Mitchell's Hopping Mouse (Notomys mitchellii), Dusky Hopping Mouse (Notomys fuscus), Spinifex Hopping Mouse (Notomys alexis), Fawn Hopping Mouse (Notomys cervinus) and Northern Hopping Mouse (Notomys aquilo).
These are true mice – not marsupials – and are members of the order Rodentia. This group is part of the 'old world' rodents originally appearing in Australia 4 million to 5 million years ago (unlike the native and introduced rat species in Australia that only arrived about 500,000 years ago).
Depending on the species, hopping mice can grow up to 27cm from top to tail and their tufted tail can be more than half of their body length!
Hopping mice weigh around 35g. Their soft fur coat is grey, fawn or pale orange, with a white underbelly. When not hopping or ‘galloping’, they walk awkwardly on all fours.
Hopping mice have dark eyes, strong front teeth and large round ears.
Their ears have such a large surface area that the blood that flows through them returns to the body cooler than before, lowering the body temperature!
This is a valuable adaptation for life in Australia's arid interior.
Where do hopping mice live?
Since European settlement, six species of hopping mouse have become extinct. The five extant (living) species have a patchy distribution in inland, central Australia.
For most species old records show a much wider, less fragmented range. The Dusky Hopping Mouse, Fawn Hopping Mouse and the Northern Hopping Mouse are considered 'Vulnerable' under federal legislation.
Hopping mice inhabit sand dunes, grasslands, gibber plains, heaths and open forest. They prefer places with water and some perennial vegetation.
Hopping mice live and burrow in the hummocks of plant species like canegrass and spinifex. Their burrows can be 1.5m deep and 5m long, with a series of chambers and entrances that they literally dive into!
Hopping mice are gregarious – a group of up to five individuals can live in one deep, humid burrow, protecting themselves from the daytime heat and huddling together in winter.
Hopping mouse behaviour
Hopping mice are nocturnal. They rest in their burrows during the day and venture out at night to forage. Their home range is very small; they rarely venture more than a few metres from their burrows!
Hopping mice don’t need to drink water – all the moisture they need comes from their food. They eat seeds, berries, plants, insects, fungi and small reptiles.
They're opportunistic breeders. Populations fluctuate greatly depending on rainfall and other environmental conditions. They can become locally extinct during times of drought, before their population ‘errupts’ after rainfall.
Even though they’re little critters, they can migrate up to 15km towards rain! They rear a litter of 1 to 5 young, that weigh a tiny 2g to 4g at birth. Without a pouch, the young cling to the nipples of the mother for about a month.
The noise hopping-mice make is best described as a ‘twitter’. But on encountering a blockage in their burrow they ‘squeak’ to enlist the help of other hopping mice. They form loose social groups or aggregations rather than related or family groups.
Threats to hopping mice
Hopping mice face threats common amongst small Australian mammals: habitat degradation, overgrazing by feral herbivores (namely cattle, rabbits and mice), predation by cats and foxes, extended periods of drought, and climate change-induced variations in rainfall.
Dingo culling and baiting may also be a threatening process; some studies show that hopping mice are more abundant when Dingoes are present, as Dingoes tend to control cat and fox numbers within their range.
What’s Bush Heritage doing?
We have at least three species of hopping mouse on our reserves:
We protect the habitat of hopping mice by reducing the grazing pressure (removing cattle, rabbits and camels) that cause habitat destruction. We’re also implementing fox and cat control, and prevent the baiting of Dingoes.
Our fire management aims to reduce the incidence of large destructive wildfires, and to ensure that mature stands of hummock and tussock grass remain, to provide both shelter for the burrows and food sources.
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