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Vikings Spread the Humble House Mouse During Ancient Conquests


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house mouse

House mouse; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/George Shuklin

Four-legged stowaways hitched a ride aboard the wooden 10th- and 11th-century Viking ships that braved the northern seas. The probably numerous passengers aboard hailed from Mus musculus domesticus, the small, fleet-of-foot rodent otherwise known simply as the house mouse.

Opportunistic hangers-on have accompanied human migrations throughout history. From the louse to the mouse, scientists have started using detailed DNA evidence from these species to see how these animals have spread along with our own settlements.  A new study, published online March 18 in BMC Evolutionary Biology, shows that Norwegian Vikings brought mice along in their conquests, some of whose descendants persist to this day in the far-flung destinations visited.

“We can match the pattern of human populations to that of the house mice,” Eleanor Jones, of the University of York and Uppsala University and a co-author of the study, said in a prepared statement. “Human settlement history of the last 1,000 years is reflected in the genetic sequence of mouse mitochondiral DNA.”

She and her colleagues collected genetic evidence from mouse bones uncovered in archeological digs at Viking settlements in Iceland and Greenland, settlements that date back to the 10th century. The researchers then compared the ancient DNA with samples of modern mouse DNA collected from the same regions.

Perhaps 11th-centry Vikings don’t sound like the most domestic of settlers, but they took with them the trappings of home, which included semi-stable dwellings that at least made a house good enough for a mouse.

The mice also might have tagged along with the Vikings during their relatively short foray to Newfoundland around the year 1000. But if they did, then “like the Vikings, their presence was fleeting,” noted Jeremy Searle, another co-author and a professor at Cornell University, in a prepared statement. And that is not terribly surprising. Local indigenous tribes lived in the area at the time, but their more spare, nomadic life style might have been inadequate for the more domestic mouse. Modern-day Newfoundland is by no means mouse-less, of course. The current house mouse found there descended primarily from a British mouse lineage that arrived in the 15th century.

Closer to the Viking’s homeland, Iceland’s house mouse, like its human population, exhibits scant genetic diversity, suggesting the presence of small initial founding events: the rodents who came with the Vikings rarely had their genetic pool supplemented by later arrivals to the island.

Greenland also boasts a mouse populace whose fortunes rose and fell with their human shipmates. The house mouse seems to have arrived, languished and then was reestablished from a different homeland, likely Denmark.

As genetic sequencing technology improves to let us peer back farther into the past, scientists will continue to follow the DNA crumbs, which, in the case of house mice, will likely lead us to our own hearths.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ecstatist 5:33 am 03/19/2012

    The Vikings (likely?) were the major early distributors of “red hair” genes.

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  2. 2. MadScientist72 10:00 am 03/19/2012

    “The current house mouse found there descended primarily from a British mouse lineage that arrived in the 15th century.”
    Are you sure that date is correct? The only “British” (actually an Italian sailing under a British flag) explorer of the 15th Century was John Cabot and, although he is generally believed to have landed in Newfoundland, his stay was even shorter than the Vikings’.

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  3. 3. jimfromcanada 4:25 pm 03/19/2012

    Fishermen from Europe, probably Bretony or the Basques fished Newfoundland waters probably before John Cabot went to the mainland and established the British claim there in 1497.

    Link to this
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  5. 5. st3v333 9:17 pm 03/19/2012

    Thanks for the article. But how about rats( Rattus norvegicus)? Do vikings spread rats too?

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  6. 6. rugeirn 10:17 pm 03/19/2012

    “Closer to the Viking’s homeland, Iceland’s house mouse, like its human population, exhibits scant genetic diversity, suggesting the presence of small initial founding events: the rodents who came with the Vikings rarely had their genetic pool supplemented by later arrivals to the island.”

    That requires explanation. Human traffic to and from Iceland has been continuous. Why would human traffic include mice only once? There should have been a continuous influx of mice. Something needs more study here.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rugeirn 10:19 pm 03/19/2012

    Would the proper authority kindly remove the blatant spam posted by MossConnie, 4:57 pm 03/19/2012, and ensure that MossConnie’s access is denied in the future?

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  8. 8. Diesel67 11:02 pm 03/19/2012

    Eek! A mouse!

    Link to this
  9. 9. ASHIK 4:18 am 03/20/2012

    Snakes might have goten aboard ships during ancient times to eat mice as well.

    Link to this

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