The term "beach mouse" may seem a little weird — maybe it's because they're nocturnal and aren't around when you're soaking in the sun or maybe it's because they're endangered and not as prevalent as other wildlife. Whatever the case may be, you're missing out on some cute critters.
Two weeks ago, Topsail State Park Ranger Chris Roberts led an informative discussion on the beach mouse, detailing what makes the endangered animal special and how park rangers monitor and track them.
"They're amazing creatures," Roberts said.
Topsail State Park has one of the largest populations of beach mice in the panhandle. The last time experts counted, there were 242 of them. Using sea oats — a favorite food among beach mice — park rangers monitor the numbers of mice by luring them through tubing placed along the length of local beaches, with carefully placed ink and paper on the ground. The papers are then sent to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) who count the footprints.
Rangers regularly visit the beach mice habitat to monitor their well-being and to make sure predatory animals, such as the cotton rat, are not encroaching on their territory.
"We put them back in the woods where they belong," Roberts said of the cotton rat. "So there's no competition."
There are eight subspecies of beach mice, but the discussion was more focused on the Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse, which is the type that lives at Topsail. Of the eight species, five inhabit the Gulf Coast and one, the Pallid Beach Mouse, is already extinct.
"The beach mouse is endangered because of a lack of habitat," Roberts explained. "They solely live in the sand dunes on the beach. And where does everyone want to go during their vacation to Florida?"
Hurricane Ivan caused a lot of trouble to the beach mouse, wiping out its habitat, Roberts said. Many park rangers were visibly upset when they came back to the beach to find the sand dunes were gone. Roberts even admits to shedding a few tears.
"After the hurricane, snow fences were built and more than 1 million sea oats were planted, since then the habitat has rebuilt awesomely," Roberts said.
But it's not just acts of nature that have driven the beach mouse out of house and home. Waterfront developments and condos have taken their toll on the endangered critters as well.
"Some people may ask, 'It's just a mouse, right?' " said Roberts. "They're a part of our ecosystem, specifically our dune ecosystem. We can actually tell if our coastal dunes are healthy by the amount of beach mice."
Caring about the welfare of something so small is the same as caring for the welfare of any living thing, explained Roberts.
"The beach mouse, I do believe, is cute and I'm not a soft and cuddly type of person," he said. " It doesn't matter how little or big they are. Beach mice have been around for 10,000 years. It's up to us to ensure that they're still around for our grandkids and their grandkids.”
Keep the beach mouse safe:
You can help prevent the beach mouse from going extinct with these helpful tips:
1. The beach mouse is not a garbage eater, but their predators such as rats and raccoons are. Properly bag and dispose of garbage on the beach to make sure you don't entice any of the creatures from getting to close to the beach mouse habitat.
2. If you live on or near the beach, keep you cats indoors at night.
3. Boardwalks are a blessing to the beach mouse since they prevent damage to the dunes, Roberts said. Utilize them whenever you can.
4. Avoid using poisons, snap traps, glue boards and similar techniques in beach mouse habitat.