For centuries, aspiring lovers have used flowers and exotic delicacies to woo their partners, and it seems the animal kingdom is no different.
Scientists have bolstered the numbers of one of the nation’s most critically endangered species, the smoky mouse, by decking out the breeding enclosures of six adult mice with flowers and food.
The old-fashioned dating techniques have seen six new litters of baby mice welcomed at Australia’s only smoky mouse captive breeding facility — spearheaded by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH).
Breeding specialist Daniel Gowland said researchers played Cupid by creating the perfect breeding environment for the cute critters.
“Food is a stimulus for us all, it’s one of the first little integrations we do … and it’s one of the main things we had to work on,” he said.
“We need to give flowers once or twice a week and that way they can take what they want — their body can give them the cue: ‘I need to eat a little bit of this’.”
But the process behind the procreation is slightly less romantic than flowers and delicacies.
The breeding facility places the male mouse in one enclosure, and the female in another. The two enclosures are connected to a third enclosure, and the mice are able to move between the rooms through small pipes.
The animals typically spend about two weeks in their own room, before deciding to take the bold step of venturing into the neutral territory.
“Straight away, we can see the girl’s gone ‘Oh, I like you’ and dragged the little boy into her room and the boy’s moved straight in,” Mr Gowland said.
“It will take a couple of weeks still, what they tend to do is set up their own little house, but right when they’re about to give birth they set up a birthing suite in that common ground.”
Spicing things up with newcomers
But the researchers found in some cases, the mice needed some extra assistance.
“We weren’t getting breeding out of a pair that was obviously bonded, there was a lot of cuddling, a lot of grooming together, but no breeding activity,” Mr Gowland said.
“I found a male … he was very much in season, and it stimulated the other pair to make babies.
“The male’s glands become quite swollen and they’ll have a, depending on your taste, a nice sweet and musky smell about them, and just bringing another male into the area will help stimulate a lot of the other pairs to breed.”
Population numbers of the smoky mouse in the wild have dropped to critically low levels, with fewer than 1,000 in Australia.
Because the mice are typically very naive and trusting, they easily fall prey to feral cats and foxes, making them vulnerable to extinction.
But the threatened species team leader from the NSW OEH, Damon Oliver, said the breeding program could help save this “uniquely Australian rodent”.
“It does play an important role in what we call ecosystem function or engineering,” he said.
“Part of its diet is native fungus, which lives under the ground, so it plays a role in turning the soil over which actually helps the viability of the vegetation it lives in.”
Dr Oliver said scientists ultimately hoped to boost the number of smoky mice by introducing those bred in the facility into the wild.