A previously unknown type of mouse has been discovered on the island of Cyprus, apparently the first new terrestrial mammal species discovered in Europe in decades.
The "living fossil" mouse has a bigger head, ears, eyes and teeth than other European mice and is found only on Cyprus, Thomas Cucchi, a research fellow at Durham University in northeast England, said Thursday. Genetic tests confirmed that the new mouse was a new species and it was named Mus cypriacus, or the Cypriot mouse, he said.
His findings appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa, an international journal for animal taxonomists.
The biodiversity of Europe has been combed through so extensively since Victorian times that new mammal species are rarely found there, and few scientists had expected new creatures as large as mice to be discovered on the continent.
"New mammal species are mainly discovered in hot spots of biodiversity like Southeast Asia, and it was generally believed that every species of mammal in Europe had been identified," Cucchi said. "This is why the discovery of a new species of mouse on Cyprus was so unexpected and exciting."
Cucchi said a bat discovered in Hungary and Greece in 2001 was the last new living mammal found in Europe. No new terrestrial mammal has been found in Europe for decades, he said.
Cucchi compared the new mouse's teeth with those from mouse fossils collected by paleontologists. The comparison showed the new mouse had colonized and adapted to the Cypriot environment several thousand years before the arrival of man, the university said in a statement.
The discovery indicated that the mouse survived man's arrival on the island and now lived alongside common European house mice, whose ancestors had arrived with man during the Neolithic period, the university said.
"All other endemic mammals of Mediterranean islands died out following the arrival of man, with the exception of two species of shrew. The new mouse of Cyprus is the only endemic rodent still alive, and as such can be considered as a living fossil," Cucchi, a Frenchman, said in a telephone interview.
Shrews are small mammals that resemble mice but have a long, pointed snout and eat insects.
Cucchi, an archaeologist and expert on the origin and human dispersal of house mice, found the new species of mouse while working in Cyprus in 2004. He was examining the archaeological remains of mice teeth from the Neolithic period and comparing them with those of four known modern-day European mice species, to determine if the house mouse was the unwelcome byproduct of human colonization of the island 10,000 years ago, the university said.
"The discovery of this new species and the riddle behind its survival offers a new area of study for scientists studying the evolutionary process of mammals and the ecological consequences of human activities on island biodiversity," Cucchi said.