A critically endangered Australian rodent called the smoky mouse was already fighting off extinction when the 2019-2020 fire season hit. The bushfires torched 13.6 million acres, may have killed an estimated one billion animals and put more than 100 threatened species at risk.
Before the fires, the smoky mouse was only found in the wild in a small number of forested pockets in southeastern Australia, and when more than 90 percent of the mouse’s habitat was razed by the conflagration, researchers feared the worst, says Matt Kean, the environment minister for New South Wales, in a statement.
The fires even came for the mice in captive breeding facilities hoping to restore their ailing wild populations. In February, the smoky mouse made headlines as the first recorded instance of wildlife being killed by smoke inhalation when nine mice died at a captive breeding facility near Canberra, reported Kate Midena of the Australian Broadcast Corporation.
In 2016, the Guardian’s Calla Wahlquist reported that there were just 100 recorded smoky mice left in the wild and that a captive breeding program would be essential to their continued survival. Captive breeding has produced 47 mature smoky mice over the last four years.
Now, motion-sensing cameras set up in the recovering Australian landscape have captured images of the smoky mouse at seven separate sites, hopefully indicating that the 50-gram Aussie rodent can bounce back from the brink, reports the Australian Associated Press.
Over the course of five weeks, 58 cameras captured more than 40,000 images in burnt, semi-burnt and unburnt areas of the mountainous Kosciuszko National Park, according to the statement. The cameras also revealed signs that the threatened eastern pygmy-possum had survived in three of the burnt sites.
“After such a confronting and challenging start to the year, it was a very happy moment to know a native animal already threatened with extinction has survived,” says Kean in the statement.
The rodent’s primary threats are habitat loss and being eaten by feral cats and invasive European foxes. Government programs working to eradicate the feral cats and non-native foxes may also be critical to giving the mouse a chance at continued existence.
Though he may be biased, biologist Kevin Rowe, a senior curator of mammals for Museums Victoria, told the Guardian that the mice are “really just lovely.” Their charcoal fur is reputedly soft and silky and Rowe even said that “they actually smell really nice… Males especially smell like a kind of smoky burnt vanilla, and they have really nice calm temperaments.”
In the next 12 months surveys will search for surviving pockets of the endangered mouse’s population with an eye towards future reintroduction efforts of captive bred mice.
“Population numbers in the wild are quite low for this native mouse and there are now only two sites in New South Wales where smoky mice are known to occur,” says Linda Broome, a smoky mouse expert and the threatened species officer for the New South Wales state government, in the statement.
Besides reintroducing captive-bred mice, Broome is also hopeful that the Australian spring, when the mice breed, will bring more good news for the species.