Understanding rodents by way of the Nilgiris long-tailed mouse

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Understanding rodents through the Nilgiris long-tailed mouse

The Nilgiri long-tailed mouse. | Photo credit: SPECIAL AGREEMENT

Studying an “endangered” species of long-tailed mice in the Nilgiris could help researchers identify the population of other endemic rodents and small mammals affected by changing land-use patterns and habitat loss in the Western Ghats.

The Nilgiri long-tailed mouse, Vandaleuria Nilagirica Jerdon, is described as a “beautiful, soft-furred mouse — with a very long tail,” and a typical member of the species is about four inches long, the researchers said. Previously thought to be a subspecies of the Asian long-tailed tree mouse, it is now widely regarded as a completely different species and is endemic to the Western Ghats.

Because it’s a shy, nocturnal animal, very little is known about the health of the Western Ghats population, like many other rodent species, said R. Brawin Kumar, a wildlife researcher who was involved in a campaign to raise awareness in public for small mammals such as the Madras hedgehog and the endangered Elvira rat, which is believed to now inhabit only a small portion of the Yercaud hills.

“Due to a lack of research into species like the Nilgiri long-tailed mouse, we have almost no idea whether these species are being lost to habitat destruction, climate change, or other unknown threats. It is imperative that they are first identified and the habitats protected, or we could one day leave them to extinction without even realizing it,” Mr Kumar said.

N. Moinudheen, an independent wildlife researcher who published a paper on the records of the Nilgiri long-tailed mouse near Coonoor, said the species prefers evergreen forests and bamboo thickets.

“They are very rarely sighted due to their size, as they are nocturnal and extremely shy,” he said, adding that recent records suggest the species is more common in Coonoor and along the lower Nilgiri slopes.

Species of rats, mice and shrews are not studied very extensively, said A. Samson, a research scientist based in the Nilgiris. He said that due to the classification of these animals as “vermin,” there is almost no protection for endemic rodent species.

“They are extremely challenging to study. But if these species aren’t identified first, we could be consigning them to extinction without even understanding the reasons for their decline,” Mr Samson said, adding that he and a team of researchers are working to capture shrews and rodents that kill them human dwellings and farmland inhabit outside forests reserve.

“Hopefully such efforts will help us identify population trends for species like the Nilgiri long-tailed mouse,” said Mr. Samson.