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Common Questions about Mouse Plagues

It is said that Australia suffered the worse mouse infestation problems in 2007. This massive mouse outbreak was considered as a muse plague, a term which was never used in this place for some time already (in the 1970s, Australia also suffered from the same problems). But what is a mouse plague really? What happens when it occurs? These and so many other questions would-pop out of our minds every time this issue is raised. This article is written to give readers at least the modicum level of understanding of what a mouse plague is really all about.

What is a mouse plague?

The most prevalent determining agent of what constitute a mouse plague is massive mice infestation. When the number of mice in a hectare of land exceeds 1000, mouse plague is definitely occurring. The population can swell up to 3000 (it can't go higher than that because the mice will also compete for food). They usually infest regions that grow a lot of grains, in Australia these are the southern and the eastern regions. When mouse plagues happen, the pests can infest an entire grain barn and leave it empty overnight. The worst part is, in case when the mice are not able to consume all the grains, what's left has to be thrown away because of contamination (i.e. mouse urine, droppings, saliva, etc.). Thus is can be deduced that mouse plagues can cause very serious damages to agricultural lands. In some cases, they can even bring down an entire economy for a while and make that community suffer for the loss of income. Mice have been causing too much stress to farmers and other land owners already, even before a mouse plagues happens, so you can only imagine how stressed they become when it does.

Which places in the world do mouse plagues happen?

Excessive mice infestation does not happen in too many places in the world. One particular reason to this is that only a few regions in the world have the combined factors that make mice breeding fast and easy. In the southern and eastern portions of Australia, mice are able to reproduce incessantly because of the temperature and the overall climate of the place. Moreover, they also get enough food supply from their vast wheat lands (a mouse favourite). Other areas that have cases of mouse plagues are California and some areas in the north-western regions of China. Nonetheless, these areas do not suffer mouse plagues as much as Australia. Thus, in a relative sense, it can be said that only Australia really suffer from repeated mouse plagues.

What causes a mouse plague?

It is sure about what causes the outbreak: the supply of food. But, experts agree that this is not the only reason. While the reasons why the outbreaks happen in the southern and northern portions of Australia, it is still very apparent that they two regions have identical climates. Rainy season is a very favourable weather condition for mice and this normally happens from April to October, and the harvest period is these regions also happen during this period. This means that at the very moment when they can reproduce massively, they will also have enough access to all the food that they need. This mixed condition is probably the surest reason why Australia has had a lot of outbreaks in the past, and possibly in the future. Well, the thing about mouse plagues is that they do not last forever. The peak of the population explosion might last for 18 months and almost immediately, the population of the mice will take a very significant drop; from a thousand mice per hectare, it can drop to 1-3 mice and in a matter of weeks the plague will subside and will not come back for a couple of years.

What ends the plague?

Experts have note really understood yet why the plague ends. Some speculate that it probably happens after the mice have already consumed too much food that the supply starts to become insufficient to support their population. Other factors which might can the end of the plague are: predation, diseases and overcrowding.

Can the plague happen in one place and then occur in another?

Some people actually think that the plague can "travel". However, the truth is that it can't. Maybe to some extent, the plague may move in a small-scale level but this does not happen in a short span of time and in most cases the movement is too insignificant that it would seem as if the movement never happened at all. These slight movements take about 9 months become obvious and is often unsuccessful because right when it is complete, the harvest in the area where they opt to migrate is also finished. Nevertheless, is the climate is still favourable to the mice, there is still very high chance that a good portion of their population will make it into the next location and start to reproduce in this area again.

How do we minimize plague damage?

When mouse plagues happen, it is imperative that a massive population control program be implemented. Although the plague would naturally subside on its own, this natural death happens in 18 months -- a period too long for farmers to wait. This duration is also enough to kill an entire economy. Thus, the government would actually really invest a good amount of money just to cut down the mice's population as fast as possible. One particular example is the action done by the Australian government in 2007. The government has commissioned planes to spread poisoned baits throughout the southern and northern regions in order to kill thousands if not millions of mice at once. Immediately a day after the poison was spread, farmers practically started to walk on dead mice on the ground.

Other methods used to minimize the damage caused by the plague includes: cleaning after a harvest (removing grains from the ground), weeding, fencing and regular cultivation. It is important that the farmlands are constantly visited by people so that the mice will not feel as if they can live in the area without a threat.

Mice in Space

November last year, space shuttle "Discovery" left Earth along with six astronauts and guess what -- 16 astro-mice! The mice are brought for a specific reason and it is said that they are destined to make history. The astronauts and the mice went to space in order to know more about the effects of the new environment to the overall health of humans and animals. This is in line with the current efforts of the NASA to get substantial data in order to verify if humans can indeed survive in space, come the time when the Earth will no longer be liveable.

NASA has been researching about the behaviour and condition of the human's immune system when it is in space. The people behind the study want to assess if the change in gravity as well as the overall environmental factors which are exclusive to Earth will also alter a human's capability to combat harmful bacteria and diseases. Of course, since this task is too risky for a human to test on himself/herself, the astronauts brought with them the mice so that they can be put into the test first. We have all known of the great help that mice have given humanity when we began testing genetic mutation on them. Decades ago, we even started to grow human tissues in their bodies -- things which helped save thousands of lives already. This time, the experts are again soliciting the help of these rodents to again achieve another great feat, something which would have been really impossible if the mice where not around.

This particular research by NASA has been there for more than 25 years already. NASA has even partnered with the University of Texas for this endeavour. The goal of the medical branch of the University is to find a way to help those who currently have immune system problems on Earth (HIV positive) while the intentions of NASA is highly futuristic. Well, their goals might be different but the two agencies are working hand in hand to achieve the same thing, which I think, is what's more important.

NASA started to pay attention to immune system problems after the astronauts from the Apollo missions showed decreased susceptibility to diseases when they came back. Even while they are still in space, many of the scientists became ill, although they never have records of being sick before they left Earth. The only sensible explanation that NASA can think of is that maybe there is something is space that makes a human's immune system suffer. This theory is yet to be tested, and that is the reason why they brought mice into space.

The thing is, the mice should experience the same immune system problems that the astronauts have suffered and if they don't, then that's the angle that the NASA is particularly itching for. The idea is that when the mice do not become affected by the change in environment, the experts would have to make deductions that the effects are exclusive to humans, something which brings to the surface so many interesting questions. These questions are vital in determining whether humans can indeed live outside Earth.

A professor in the University of Texas, Dr. Garofalo said that the susceptibility of the astronauts to bacterial infection might be caused by the dormancy of their bodies while they are in space. Once they start the spaceflight again, their bodies no longer have enough time to adjust back to the movement and so it becomes weak. This theory is of course not founded yet, but D. Garofalo is convinced that this might be the real case. He compared the susceptibility to the astronauts to that an elderly or a child and the best way to verify this is to subject the mice into the test (mice have similar systems as humans).

In order to keep the research fail-safe, the researchers have also kept the same number of mice on the ground, inside their laboratories on Earth. These mice came from the same bloodline as the mice which are brought in space. Both the mice on Earth and in space are given the same nourishment. The end goal of the research is to compare the health conditions of the two groups of mice and see if the group in space will become more vulnerable to the same infections by introducing them to the bacteria that cause it. Once the mice have been exposed to the bacteria, they will be examined and the researchers are hoping that they would finally be able to identify the reasons why the immune system is weakened in space.

The lungs and the other organs of the mice will be inspected and using various statistical data and sampling, the researchers will compare the changes in these organs and identify which factors caused these changes. Scientists are very confident that the mice will be able to give them substantive results since these little rodents have been doing this for the past few decades.

Other Functions of Mice in Space

Apart from helping scientists in their researches on the human's immune system, mice are also used by astronauts in space to verify if the absence of gravity can indeed affect the sense of direction of an animal. The research involves having mice breed in space and then allowing the pregnant mice to give birth to their child in space. For comparison, a pair of mice from the same bloodline is also mated on Earth at the same time. The two pregnant mice will give birth at the same time and their offspring will be tested by dropping the two critters into an aquarium full of water. The critter from space was brought back to the ground for a side by side comparison. The results were impressive. The mouse from space was not able to redirect its body so that its feet are aligned to hit the ground. The mouse from Earth only took a second to position itself to hit the ground with its feet.

The Greener Approach to Rodent Control

There is no doubt that some people can find great pleasure in keeping rats and mice as pets. However, outside this context, these rodents are actually very terrible pests. They can provide incalculable damages to our properties and to our health. In fact, millions of dollars are being wasted away each year because of these animals. Over the past years, we have developed tons of methods used to control them in order to minimize the damages that they can do. However, most of these methods are chemical-based and unfortunately, such chemicals can greatly harm the environment. Thus, in the end, although mice are indeed controlled by the methods used, the amount of damage is still not minimized.

But it's not just the environment that these chemical-based control products harm. One characteristic common to most rat and mouse poisons is their slow-killing ability. This means that only a few types of poisons can kill mice and rats on the spot. Most of them kill the rodents slowly by weakening their internal organs or by forcing their bodies to bleed internally. Apart from the cruelty of this method, it can also pose serious threats to the other animals in the house. For example, a mouse or a rat dying from the poison might run lose and get the chance to encounter your pet dog or cat. You might might eat or play with dying or dead rodents and poison them in the process.

These are the reasons why greener approaches to rodent control always make it big whenever they are introduced into the market, at least when it comes to popularity. For obvious reasons, products which are "Earth-friendly" are more expensive to produce and this reflects in the cost of these products. Thus, no matter how popular these products are, too few people still use them because of the cost. Nevertheless, manufacturers are putting forth some extra efforts to be able to make these products more affordable. So, expect to get one of those "green mouse/rat control" products at a friendly price in a couple of years from now.

Of course, we can't just wait until all these products are made available for us. Actually, we can improvise and control mice in our own way by using items which we can find at home and in our pantry. We can also "mouse-proof" our homes in order to discourage mouse entry. Here are some of my ideas:

1. I used to live in a brick house. I have noticed that mice often use the gaps between the bricks to enter our kitchen, but I can't really seal the gaps because bricks need them in order to expand safely. The physical characteristics of bricks are greatly affected by the weather. It can contract or expand depending on the surrounding temperature, thus the gaps are intentionally placed in order to avoid breaking whenever the bricks expand. Knowing that I can't do much about the gaps, I "sealed" the gabs by using a crumpled chicken wire. The wire was sufficient to discourage mice entry while not completely sealing up the gap, thus still giving the bricks space to expand.

2. For houses which are not made from bricks, sealing should be easier. Owners should inspect every corner of their house in order to identify possible entry points. The easiest way to seal the openings is through the use of steel wool or scourers (usually used for cleaning cooking pots). Steel wools are very affordable and they can be bought per piece. Scourers can be cut to the right sizes using industrial scissors.

3. It is common knowledge that mice and rats are attracted to garbage. These rodents like to nibble on everything found in the trash can including leftover foods and vegetable peelings. Thus, it is wise if the homeowner covers all the trash bins in the house with lids which are not easy to remove. As much as possible the lids should perfectly fit the trash bin's opening so that the rodents will not be able to sneak in the gaps. For compost bins outside the house, homeowners are advised to elevate them. The elevation will make the bin less easy to penetrate. However, if the bin is indeed elevated, homeowners should make sure that the bottom portion of the bin is drilled with holes in order to let the moisture of the compost leave the bin.

4. Rodents prefer to nest indoors but they can also nest outdoors. If you have already sealed your house, chances are, the mice and rats might have just settled to nest outside. To stop them from doing so, make sure that you clear your yard from any forms of debris piles. Mice also nest under firewood and rock piles. If the piles are inevitable, practice disturbing these piles on a regular basis just to give the mice a hint that they will not be at peace under these piles. Mice do not like disturbances thus if you do it often, they will definitely leave your property on their own.

5. It is also helpful if you conduct regular clean-ups in your kitchen area and in the other places in your house where mice are most likely to nest. Mice require very little sustenance so even a very small portion of leftover food can encourage them to stay in your area and forage where you have these leftover food lying around.

6. You will know if your area is really prone to rat or mice infestation. If you are certain that despite all the safety measures that you have done, mice and rats might still come in your place, change all your trash bins to metal ones. Do no use plastic trash bins anymore because mice have this twisted thought about anything that they can chew. They will only attempt to chew on your plastic bins and in the long run, they might actually succeed in doing so.

7. Just like squirrels, mice and rats also feed on bird seeds. If you have a bird feeder at home, just make sure that you place it far from your house so that the rodents that happen to find out about it will not be tempted to visit your house. As much as possible, cleanout fallen fruits the soonest that they fall from the tree as these too can encourage mice and rats to come into your residence.
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