Brussels, 29 Apr 2003
Wood mice are as clever as humans when it comes to finding their way around, claims a recent study published in the BioMed central journal on ecology.
Pavel Stopka and David Macdonald from the department of zoology at Oxford University found that wood mice use small objects like piles of seed shells or leaves as portable 'signposts' during exploration. These points of reference help the mice to identify places of interest in their vast environment where 'fixed' landmarks are non-existent due to the ever changing seasons.
This is a significant finding as, until now, scientists believed that only humans were capable of creating and then updating spatial reference points in such a way. 'This is precisely how a human might tackle the problem of searching efficiently in a homogeneous environment - for example by placing a cane in the ground as a reference point from which to search for a set of keys dropped on a lawn,' noted the study.
To support their observations, the research team decided to monitor the mice in a controlled environment. Over a period of 15 days, ten groups of four male and four female mice were placed into special arenas with a nest box, food supply, bedding, and mobile white discs.
The scientific team noted that the movement around the nest box tended to consist only of short, local meanderings, unrelated to the location of the nest. However, both male and female mice were observed spending longer periods of time around the white discs. During these long intervals, the mice would move the disc to a location and return to the disc from time to time. These movements seemed to confirm that the mice were using the discs to orient themselves and to mark places of interest.
The team also believe that the disc helped the mice mark areas in order to return to them following an interruption due to a predator. Once the threat had gone, the mice headed for the disc.
The study concludes that mice may have chosen to use 'signposts' rather than scent marks as they can be moved about and cannot be detected by predators.
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