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Volume 5, Number 1—February 1999

Navigational Instinct: A Reason Not to Live Trap Deer Mice in Residences

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To the Editor: Although the rodent that most often invades homes in North America is the house mouse, Mus musculus, the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, principal vertebrate host of Sin Nombre virus (SNV) (1), also invades homes (2), particularly in rural areas. Barring deer mice from human habitations would prevent domiciliary acquisition of SNV. Current recommendations (3) are to prevent wild rodents from entering homes or to snap trap (kill) them should they enter.

To conduct longitudinal studies of hantaviruses in southeastern Colorado on a former cattle ranch now returning to its natural condition as short-grass prairie, we often stay in an old bunkhouse, used by many research groups at irregular intervals. The house, furnished with beds and full kitchen facilities, is well maintained but has openings through which mice can pass to and from the outside. For safety and cleanliness, we removed mice we found inside the house, but between April 1996 and April 1998, we live trapped and released them rather than snap trapping them. Before release the rodents were identified to species; were measured and assessed regarding general appearance and health, sexual preparedness, and presence of wounds; were bled for antibody tests; and were ear-tagged. Nineteen deer mice and one pinyon mouse (a P. truei, which did not return) were examined and tagged. At first, we simply released these animals approximately 50 m from the house, but when we realized that they were returning, we released them at increasing distances (50 m to 1,500 m) from the house; the distances were measured by pace counts by at least two investigators.

Three deer mice had been captured multiple times in our test grid (as far as 250 m from the house) before they were first captured in the house. Once captured in the house, however, they were not captured in traps of the grid (i.e., outside the house). The mean distance traversed by the five deer mice that returned to the house was at least 394 m; one mouse returned after being released 500 m and 1,000 m, then 750 m, and 1,200 m from the house at consecutive daily trapping sessions of 3 days. Sometime within the subsequent 6 weeks, this mouse returned to the house from the 1,000-m release point and then from 750 m and 1,200 m away on consecutive days within our 3-day trapping period. Each of the mice returning to the house did so within 24 hours of release, two as few as 6 hours after release from 500 m and 750 m away. Nine mice were captured once; six of eight mice captured twice were captured at least once more; one was captured 10 times, one 7 times, one 6 times, one 4 times, and two 3 times. Equal numbers of male and female, adult and juvenile mice were captured in the house, but only adult mice (5 of 5) returned to the house. Returning deer mice maintained or gained weight between captures and grew in length at approximately the same rate as deer mice captured in the test grid.

Some rodents have been documented to move similar distances (e.g., 1,200 m), but they took more than 2 weeks to complete the trek (4). Homing ability, site fidelity, and navigational proficiency of rodents are well documented (5,6). Teferi and Millar (7) studied the homing ability of deer mice in Alberta, Canada; 50% of deer mice in that study returned to their home sites (a short-grass prairie habitat). The mice traveled 650 m to 1,980 m (mean 1,500 m) and had to cross a river and pass optimal habitat patches to reach their home sites. Deer mice with previous homing experience were more successful in returning home (100%) than inexperienced mice (60%) and faster in doing so (8). Teferi and Millar (7) suggest that these deer mice were able to navigate in a direct route to their home sites. We released mice in locations where they had no direct route to the house; they had to follow a winding road, climb over rocky outcroppings nearly 17 m high, or otherwise surmount obstacles and dangers, such as predators (7).

None of the mice we captured had immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody to SNV. However, infected deer mice released and then returning to a house or uninfected deer mice released, infected, and then returning to a house would increase the likelihood of human contact with an SNV-infected mouse. The risk would be the same for other hantaviruses infecting other peridomestic rodents. Against current recommendations that rodents in homes be snap trapped, some homeowners live trap and release them outside their homes. Our data strongly support snap trapping mice in homes and provide evidence that released wild mice return and may place the residents at risk.



We thank T. Davis, S.B. Calisher, and E. Kuhn for their assistance in completing these studies.

This work was partially funded by contract U50-CCU-813420-01 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Charles H. Calisher*, William P. Sweeney†, J. Jeffrey Root*, and Barry J. Beaty*
Author affiliations: *Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA;; †University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas, USA



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DOI: 10.3201/eid0501.990125

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