The House Mouse – What’s in a Name?

What makes a mouse a ‘House Mouse’? And why does it matter to us?

The eminent geneticist Professor R J Berry stated back in 1981 that ‘The generally accepted idea that the house mouse is a single, world-wide species which owes its success largely to commensalism with man is wrong……. The house mouse of western Europe is A mouse in the Cage in isolated White Backgroundthe one that has been introduced to the Americas and Australasia, as well as being domesticated in the laboratory and ‘fancy’ strains; it is properly described as Mus domesticus.’ And he ought to know, collecting over 8,000 mice of different species from 94 islands across the world!

To all but a very small number of specialist taxonomists (I mean really small – they could probably hold a conference in a broom cupboard) that would seem a definitive statement, and when I started working for Rentokil Initial back in the early 1990’s we were referring to House Mice by the scientific name Mus domesticus as the species of mouse we controlled across the globe. Mus musculus which was the old scientific name for House Mice was a separate species to be found further East and North of a rough line between Denmark and Bulgaria.

However, since this time and largely unseen outside the broom cupboard of taxonomists, there has been a great deal of debate and disagreement about how to actually classify House Mice – are they all separate species, sub-species, or even just sub-strains of one species? The debate has been fueled by the fact that the domesticated House Mouse is the model of choice in medical research and there is therefore a need to determine the origins of each separate lab strain in order to understand any impact on testing.

Mouse close up

Now, with the advent of genome mapping technology, there is a new consensus emerging. Gradually there has been a move away from considering them separate species, pausing for a while to grudgingly refer to them as ‘semi species’ such as Mus (musculus) domesticus, to now considering all variants as sub-species.

It is therefore the newly-named sub-species Mus musculus domesticus that has successfully exploited its close relationship with man to spread across the globe. It is this sub-species that is likely to be found in infested premises in the majority of our businesses. It is also this species that forms the stock of all laboratory strain mice, although confusingly some studies have shown lab mice also have some Mus musculus musculus genetic material.


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Andy Brigham

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