UK: Norse legacy includes humble house mouse

When Vikings came to Britain they brought fear, fire and... the house mouse. New research led by the University of York has used DNA to trace the origins of house mice in the British Isles while a companion study has looked at their relatives in New Zealand.

The research found that mice in the north and west of the British Isles share their lineage with mice in Norway and their distribution is closely aligned to Viking settlement. Mice in other parts of Britain are linked to mice in Germany, reflecting Iron Age movements of people between northern Europe and Britain.

Meanwhile, the research indicates that New Zealand's mice initially arrived with traders and sealers from the British Isles. But the country also has mice that hail from eastern Europe and southern Asia, thanks to settlers from other parts of the world.

Research leader Professor Jeremy Searle of York's department of biology said: "Future studies with mice may help us to document more fine-scale Viking movements such as the colonisation of different parts of Faroe, Iceland and even North America.

"And the cultural mix of people in New Zealand has created a genetic melting pot of mice, which provides us with opportunities for further evolutionary studies."

The British research report noted that the colonisation history of Mus musculus was inextricably linked to human movements and should reflect human migrations and trading links as well as colonisation events. It noted that an earlier study of mouse DNA indicated Danish Vikings took mice to Madeira long before the island was officially discovered by the Portuguese.

The research said the link between mice in the north and west of the British Isles and Norway did not necessarily mean Vikings brought the mice to Britain - the transport might have been in the other direction. But Vikings were very good at transporting mice, apparently taking them to places as far flung as Iceland and Greenland.

"The combination in the Viking period of the spread of urbanisation in north-western Europe and the trade facilitated by sophisticated ships capable of travelling substantial distances and carrying large amounts of cargo make the Vikings ideal house mouse vectors," it said.

The studies are Of Mice and (Viking?) Men: Phylogeography of British and Irish house mice, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The New Zealand research is titled The Diverse Origins of New Zealand House Mice.


* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.