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Durham University News


Durham Research Fellow discovers new species of mammal in Europe

(11 October 2006)

An archaeozoologist has stumbled across a new species of mammal in Europe, an area where scientists had believed all mammal species had already been identified many years ago in the last century.

The new mammal, a species of mouse, namely Mus cypriacus, was found in Cyprus by a research fellow at Durham University, Dr Thomas Cucchi, an expert on the origin and human dispersal of house mice and whose findings recently appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa.

Dr Cucchi was working in Cyprus examining archaeological remains of mice teeth from the Neolithic period and comparing them with those of four known modern day European mice species, to determine if the house mouse was the unwelcome guest of the human colonisation of the island 10,000 years ago.

Dr Cucchi said: “New mammal species are mainly discovered in hot spots of biodiversity like South East Asia and it was generally believed that every species of mammal in Europe had been identified. This is why the discovery of a new species of mouse on Cyprus was so unexpected and exciting. To understand the origin of this new mouse I compared its teeth morphology with the ones of fossils mice collected by palaeontologists. This comparison revealed that this mouse colonised and adapted to the Cypriot environment several thousand years before the arrival of man.” Samples sent to the CNRS funded Research Lab at the University of Montpellier, France, confirmed this as a new species.

Mus cypriacus differs to other European mice, it has a bigger head, ears, eyes and teeth. Once genetic tests had confirmed that the new mouse was of a different species it was named Mus cypriacus, genus Mus (Rodentia, Mammalia), only to be found on Cyprus.

This discovery revealed that an endemic species of mouse had survived man’s arrival to the island and now lived side by side with common European house mice, whose ancestors had arrived with man during Neolithic colonisation. This is very unusual because all other endemic mammals of Mediterranean islands died out following the arrival of man with the exception of two species of shrew. The new mouse of Cyprus is the only endemic rodent still alive, and as such can be considered as a ‘living fossil’.

Dr Cucchi continued: “The discovery of this new species and the riddle behind its survival offers a new area of study for scientists studying the evolutionary process of mammals and the ecological consequences of human activities on island biodiversity.”

Dr Thomas Cucchi, currently on a Fyssen Research Fellowship in Durham, is part of a CNRS funded French research group from the Natural History Museum in Paris, who are currently conducting joint studies with Durham's New Centre for Past Peoples and Palaeoenvironments (known as CP3). They are invesitigating the role of animals in the spread of human settlements in the past - and are focusing on animals such as domesticated pigs or the presence of mice and rats - and Dr Cucchi is working in Durham to develop his research techniques.

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