By Kelly Baughman
While Perdido Key is home to many fascinating animals, none may be more important to our dunes or cuter than the Perdido Key Beach Mouse. Found in only one place in the world, right here on the beaches of Perdido Key, the PK Beach Mouse is protected both state and federally as an endangered species by the Federal Endangered Species Act.
A tiny rodent, with greyish brown fur and big ears that more resembles an adorable pet store hamster than a rat, the PK Beach Mouse is essential to the integrity of the island’s coastal ecosystem. A nocturnal herbivore with a diet consisting mostly of seeds, sea oats, and sea grasses, the PK Beach Mouse is responsible for spreading uneaten seeds throughout the dunes resulting in new vegetation which offers structure and protection to local infrastructure during hurricanes.
When Hurricane Ivan was approaching the shores of Perdido Key in 2004, staff from the FWC (Florida Wildlife Commission) captured 8 PK Beach Mice, including a pregnant female, in an attempt to keep the species alive in the event of a catastrophic wipeout from the storm. The area was completely devastated, and less than 10 of the species were suspected to have survived.
With help from state and federal agencies and zoos all over Florida and Alabama, a breeding program has maintained a healthy, genetically diverse captive population of the PK Beach Mouse. On March 27th, 2010, researchers traveled to Perdido Key with 16 captive bred PK Beach Mice, and for the first time, successfully released them into their natural habitat to continue breeding in the wild.
Armed with ear tags and transmitting devices, within three months, researchers determined that a number of the females were pregnant, over a dozen offspring were discovered, and the mice were seen thriving in areas where they had not been spotted in decades. Six months into the study, the population of the animals had tripled, and researchers say that trend continues with an estimated population of over 1,000 of the endangered mice now living on the island.
Unfortunately, the biggest threat to these adorable little critters is on our shoulders. Continued beach development is destroying their natural habitat, and increased foot traffic through the dunes destroys the vegetation they depend on for food and shelter.
Another little known fact about Perdido Key is the Escambia County ordinance on the island that states that cats must be “confined to your property”, meaning any cat found roaming at large outside the perimeters of an individual’s property can be collected by animal control in an effort to protect the beach mouse population and habitat. In case you missed the memo, cats and mice are not friends.
The good news is that unlike long-lived species with single breeding seasons per year, beach mice breed-year round creating up to 13 generations of babies in a single year. Peak breeding season for the beach mouse is during the winter months when beach traffic, hurricanes, and dangerous predators are at their lowest. Scientist believe that the Perdido Key Beach Mouse is among the world’s 3% of monogamous species that pairs for life upon meeting that special someone with the irresistible brown beady eyes.
But researchers warn that despite the growing numbers of these precious little critters in the Perdido Key area, it is unlikely that they will ever be removed from the endangered species list. And while their presence on the island has angered some developers, the importance of the beach mouse and their preservation remains. As a vital part of a delicate and ever changing ecosystem, the Perdido Key Beach mouse is as unique and rare as the people that inhabit our beautiful island, and it’s our job to make sure we all get to enjoy it for generations to come.