The microenvironment of house mice on Marion Island (sub-Antarctic)

Avenant N.L. ; Smith V.R. (2003)


On Marion Island, house mice (Mus musculus) establish burrow systems that range from unbranched corridors 0.5 m long with a single chamber (in some instances without a chamber) to complexly branched systems extending over an area of up to 4 m2 and containing up to four chambers. Total underground area occupied by burrow systems (chambers plus corridors) was from 5 to 23 m2 ha-1, corresponding to burrow-system volumes of 250-1,300 dm3 ha-1. In autumn, about three-quarters of chambers contained small food caches. Most (87%) entrances to burrow systems faced away from prevailing winds, especially winds that bring snow, hail or rain. Seasonal and diurnal temperature variations in burrows are considerably dampened (daily minimum in burrows seldom drops below 2°C), compared with the air just above the vegetation canopy. Over the whole year, total night-time warmth in a burrow (heat sum, 24,883 degree hours) was 53% greater than at the top of the canopy (16,317 degree hours). Burrows' entrances are generally connected above ground by runways (paths and tunnels through the vegetation). Runways also represent a warmer environment than the air above the canopy during the breeding season at night (13,466 degree hours at the runway surface compared with 11,900 degree hours at the top of the canopy). House mice, which are living close to their physiological limits, temperature-wise, on Marion Island thus evade the worst extremes of the island's climate by constructing burrows and above-ground runways and this is an important factor in their survival.

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