August 8, 2010

Lab Mice in the Natural History Museum

Mus musculus label

Domesticated animals are rarely of interest to natural history museums, although they do seem to find their way into the collections more often than most people recognize. When I mentioned my interested in finding domesticated or selectively bred animals in the collection during a department coffee, this idea was greeted by a senior mammals researcher with a resounding, “Well THAT sounds boring”.

Indeed from a traditional Natural History viewpoint, it IS boring. That’s why I am here. For the past few weeks I’ve been camped out in the Rodent section of the Mammals division. A room behind where I am sitting is home to tens if not hundred of thousands of specimens of rodent. Up until now, my experience with rodents has been limited to those that are used in biological research: The proverbial white mouse and rat. During the last century these animals have been systematically inbred to create a reliable stand-in for studying human disease and response to toxins, stress, radiation and perhaps inadvertently, boredom.

Mus musculus domesticus

The recessive genes that give the white mouse and white rat its familiar hue are an intentional product of this engineering. This is a ground against which other genetic changes can be seen. White is rarely seen in wild rodents as they stand out against the brown and gray earth making them easy meals for birds of prey. White is the preeminent sign of domestication and is one of the first traits to be lost when lab animals are bred with wilder relatives.

For all these reasons, it is almost shocking to pull open a drawer of mice from the collection and be confronted by a row of stark white house mice. The drawer is simply labeled “Mus musculus domesticus, locality unknown”. This curiously stated place of origin is how the museum chooses to describe organisms that were raised in captivity.

Naval Labe Mice

These mice were donated to the Smithsonian by a researcher at a nearby Navy medical lab prior to the end of World War II.

Posted by: Rich @ 8:42 pm Bookmark and Share