The arrival of European settlers to Australia decimated the native rodent population, leading to several species to extinction, including the shaggy Gould’s mouse. But new research into Australian rodents led to a shocking discovery—the Gould’s mouse didn’t go extinct in the 1840s, it’s just been hanging out on an island.
This research, which was spearheaded by Emily Roycroft of the Australian National University and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, aimed to measure the genetic diversity of living and extinct Australian rodents. But while comparing the genetic profile of 50 rodents, Roycroft and her team found that the extinct Gould’s mouse is genetically identical to the living Djoongari or “Shark Bay mouse.”
Djoongari mice reside on an island in Shark Bay, an area of New South Wales. Like the extinct Gould’s mouse, Djoongari mice have shaggy light-brown fur, perky ears, and a big rump. That comes as no surprise now that we know the species are one and the same.
According to Roycroft’s paper, Australia has experienced more mammal extinctions than any other continent in the last few hundred years. While finding an exact number may be impossible, Australia has lost 34 species since Europeans colonized the continent in 1788—and nearly half of those extinct mammals are rodents.
Roycroft’s research helps to prove that these animals went extinct due to colonization and not because of any preexisting problems. Her team studied the DNA of 8 extinct Australian rodent species and found that they all had a healthy, diverse gene pool. This indicates that external forces, likely European settlement, agriculture, land clearing, and invasive species led to their demise.
But hey, at least we know that the Gould’s mouse isn’t extinct! Djoongari mice are classified as a “vulnerable” species, though the Australian Wildlife Conservatory says that its population is growing, so it appears we’re doing something right (at least for this animal).