Field of Science

Fishing Mice

In a 1950 discussion of the origins of the fauna of South America, the great American palaeontologist G. G. Simpson dismissed the enormous radiation of muroid rodents in that continent as mere "field mice" exhibiting little regional differentiation. George Gaylord Simpson may have been one of the leading thinkers in mid-20th Century evolutionary theory, but in this respect he was just plain wrong. The South American mice and rats include a wide variety of divergent forms, some of them specialised in surprising ways. Consider, for instance, the fishing mice of the Ichthyomyini.

Illustration of Stolzmann's crab-eating mouse Ichthyomys stolzmanni by Joseph Smit.


The Ichthyomyini are a small assemblage of less than twenty species of mice found between Mexico and the north of South America from Peru to French Guiana (Voss 1988). Though some species are known from lower altitudes, the majority are found in alpine habitats in association with fast-flowing mountain streams (albeit in no location are they known to be common). Ichthyomyins seem to show a particular preference for hanging around waterfalls (Barnett 1997) and are not found in association with standing water such as swamps or ponds. They are moderate in size, ranging from ten to twenty centimetres in length excluding the tail. They show a number of adaptations for foraging underwater: the hind feet are partially webbed and have a more or less elongate fringe of stiff hairs that aid in swimming, the tail is furry rather than scaly, the eyes are small, the external ears are reduced in size (in a couple of species they are completely hidden by the fur and in one, Anotomys leander, the external pinnae are missing entirely), and the whiskers are long, strong, and arranged in such a way that they almost look more like the whiskers of a sea lion than of a mouse. The nerves associated with these whiskers are also enlarged and they evidently provide the main means of finding food.

Peruvian fish-eating rat Neusticomys peruviensis, copyright Carlos Boada.


Or, as I should say, finding prey. As far as we know, these mice seem to be entirely carnivorous. Only a couple of examples are known of specimens with plant matter in their stomachs and the significance of those finds remains uncertain. The primary source of food for most species is small invertebrates such as aquatic insects. Where freshwater crabs are available, a number of species show preferences for those. In larger species, the diet may be supplemented to a greater or lesser degree by small vertebrates such as fish or tadpoles. In line with their carnivorous diet, ichthyomyins are also characterised by a shorter, less complicated gut than other mice. Little is known about breeding and nesting habits in ichthyomyins. A specimen of Chibchanomys kept in captivity made tunnels in mossy vegetation (Barnett 1997). The few known specimens of gravid females indicate that litters are small with no more than two foetuses being carried at a time.

Voss (1988) recognised five genera of Ichthyomyini. The largest of these, Neusticomys, includes about half a dozen species that may more closely resemble the ancestral morphology for the group. Their hind feet are narrower than those of other ichthyomyins and the fringe of swimming hairs is shorter (Packer & Lee 2007). Where one species found in Colombia and Ecuador, Neusticomys monticolus, overlaps in range with Anotomys leander, it shows a preference for more sheltered sections of stream banks whereas A. leander is found in more exposed rapids.

Undescribed species of Chibchanomys, copyright Alexander Pari.


In most ichthyomyins, the coat consists of a layer of dense, woolly underfur covered by an overcoat of long guard hairs mixed with glossy, often distally flattened awn hairs. In Anotomys leander, Chibchanomys trichotis, and Neusticomys monticolus, the awn hairs are missing so these species have a dull grayish black appearance overall rather than than the glossy coat of other species. Chibchanomys trichotis retains minute external ear flaps albeit not ones that are visible past the coat; Anotomys leander, as noted above, lacks external ear flaps but does have the positions of the ear openings marked by a prominent white spot. Both these last two species were placed in monotypic genera by Voss (1988), but Barnett (1997) refers to an at-that-point undescribed species of Chibchanomys.

The remaining two genera were recognised by Voss (1988) as including four species apiece. Species of Rheomys, found in the mountains of Central America, have the most extensively webbed hind feet among the ichthyomyins. This is the only genus of fishing mice found in Central America; the other genera are all restricted to South America. The genus Ichthyomys includes the largest species of the group and also the species that feed on the highest proportion of vertebrates. This difference in diet is reflected in their dentition: Ichthyomys species have proportionately larger incisors and smaller molars than other ichthyomyins, with greater emphasis on using the incisors to grasp and slice struggling prey.

Rheomys raptor, from Villalobos-Chaves et al. (2016).


All told, the ichthyomyins are a remarkable radiation. Ecologically, they are close parallels to forms found elsewhere such as water shrews or desmans, but most other semi-aquatic mammals are distinctly larger in size. Even with less than twenty species, the ichthyomyins represent more species than there are of similarly sized semi-aquatic mammals anywhere else in the world. However, as noted above, ichthyomyins are not common anywhere they occur, and factors such as deforestation and climate change could represent a significant threat to their survival. It would be unfortunate if this remarkable radiation was to fade away.

REFERENCES

Barnett, A. A. 1997. The ecology and natural history of a fishing mouse Chibchanomys spec. nov. (Ichthyomyini: Muridae) from the Andes of southern Ecuador. Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde 62: 43–52.

Packer, J. B., & T. E. Lee Jr. 2007. Neusticomys monticolus. Mammalian Species 805: 1–3.

Voss, R. S. 1988. Systematics and ecology of ichthyomyine rodents (Muroidea): patterns of morphological evolution in a small adaptive radiation. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 188 (2): 259–493.

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