Cairo Spiny Mouse

(Acomys cahirinus)

by Jay W. Sharp

Cairo Spiny Mouse, Source: picture taken by Olaf Leillinger on 2005-08-13, License: CC-BY-SA-2.0/DE and GNU FDL

Cairo Spiny Mouse
Source: picture taken by Olaf Leillinger on 2005-08-13
License: CC-BY-SA-2.0/DE and GNU FDL. WikiMedia.

If it looks like a mouse, behaves like a mouse, walks like a mouse and eats like a mouse, it must be...a gerbil! Or at least, a close relative.

Characteristics of the Cairo Spiny Mouse

Scientists at Princeton University say the Cairo spiny mouse may look like an old world mouse or rat, but it resembles a Mongolian gerbil at the molecular level. "For mammals," say the scientists, "this is the largest discrepancy known between a morphological and a molecular classification."

The Cairo spiny mouse is distinguished by the following features:

  • Adult Size and Weight: Typically, the animal's head and body measure roughly five inches in length and its tail, about four and a half inches; its weight equals about one and a quarter to one and a half ounces.
  • Color and Coat: Its back is covered with a grayish brown coat and hedgehog-like bristles, and its belly, with light gray to white softer hairs. Its coat helps dissipate heat and regulate body temperatures. Its scaly tail has few hairs. Threatened, the animal may spread its quills, making it appear larger and more formidable for an adversary.
  • Head and Face: The Cairo spiny mouse has a sharply-pointed snout, large and erect rounded ears, and prominent black eyes. Like all rodents, it has sharp chisel-like teeth -- especially the continuously-growing incisors in the upper and lower jaws -- that are well adapted for gnawing. Around its nose and mouth, it has long tactile hairs which it uses to detect objects in darkness.
  • Body and Legs: It has a plump body, short forelegs and long and powerful hind legs, which it uses for scurrying, hopping and climbing. It has dexterous forepaws, which it uses much like hands, facilitating its mobility.
  • Senses: Excellent senses of hearing and smell.
  • Communication: The animal apparently relies heavily on chemical releases that serve as a primary communication cues for identification of littermates, weaning of offspring and interactions with other spiny mouse species.

Distribution, Habitat and Diet

The Cairo spiny mouse, which occurs across much of northern and eastern Africa and the Middle East, occupies the widest range of all the spiny mouse species. It favors arid rocky canyons and cliffs and gravel plains. It has also adapted well to human settlements, making its home in building crevices, rock walls, date groves and gardens. It appears to relish high temperatures, ranging from the mid 80's to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Omnivorous, it feeds on insects, spiders, snails and various plant materials and seeds. Where its range overlaps with that of the golden spiny mouse (Acomys russatus), the two species may exploit the same food sources, with the Cairo spiny mouse feeding during the night, and the golden spiny mouse, during the day.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The Cairo spiny mouse, a social creature, lives in a familial group that often has a dominant male that fights for control. It's called by a number of names: a newborn or juvenile may be a "pup," "kitten" or "pinkie;" the female, a "doe;" the male, a "buck;" and the group, a "horde," a "colony," a "nest," or a "mischief."

The Cairo spiny mouse breeds throughout the seasons, with the female delivering several litters of two or three pinkies over a year's time. Extremely maternal, especially just before delivering a litter, she has been known to steal another mouse's baby and to groom and nurse it. If she doesn't have a baby, she may try to groom an adult mouse.

After some five and a half weeks of pregnancy, she gives birth -- with no nest -- while she stands, often with the help of another female. The helper mouse may nurse the new mother's brood along with her own, an unusual behavior in animal species.

Unlike most rodents, the newborn, weighing about two-tenths of an ounce, arrives active, fully furred and open eyed. Growing rapidly, it will be weaned within about two weeks. It will reach sexual maturity and begin reproducing within some eight and a half weeks. It will continue growing for perhaps three years, and it may live for as long as five years, with males generally living longer than females.

Perils

The Cairo spiny mouse is not considered a threatened species.

If attacked by a carnivore such as a caracal or a fennec fox, the Cairo spiny mouse may readily forfeit quills and skin patches, and its tail -- the price it pays for escape. If captured, it makes the attacker pay a price for the meal. Its spiny hairs are difficult to swallow and irritating to the throat of its predator.

Pet

The Cairo spiny mouse ranks high on the list of favorite exotic "pocket pets." Although it can deliver a painful bite, it is reputedly fairly easy to "hand-tame." Ideally, it should be kept with an appropriately sized colony in a large glass aquarium with a secure but ventilated lid, in a warm room, but not in direct sun exposure. It requires plenty of additions to its environment to keep occupied, such as branches and broken pots. According to some Swedish owners, the animal may learn its name, come when called and perch on your shoulder. It should, however, be handled with patience because it is prone to panic, which may trigger frantically erratic movements that can lead to escape. If panicked enough, it may bite, a painful experience as their teeth are sharp.

Interesting Facts

  • Fossil evidence suggests that the Cairo spiny mouse's ancestors first appeared in Africa, in the Late Miocene Epoch about 5 to 11 million years ago.
  • The Cairo spiny mouse, say scientists with Australia's Monash University, serves as "an ideal rodent model for perinatal research..." because the species has a relatively long period of gestation period, small sizes of litters, and advanced development at birth. It has "sophisticated sensory and motor capabilities," which facilitate early locomotion and thermoregulation. Further, "Spiny mice have been studied extensively as a possible model for mature-onset or chemical diabetes and obesity in humans."
  • If the animal evades capture by sacrificing quills and skin patches or its tail, its blood clots exceptionally rapidly, minimizing losses and facilitating healing. However, its tail, which breaks off easily and painfully, never grows back.
  • The Cairo spiny mice eat nearly everything, even fiber mats. They are reported to have dined on the mummies in the tombs of Egypt.
  • Cairo spiny mice are also known as Egyptian spiny mice, Arabian spiny mice, Greater Wilfred's mice, or Northeast African spiny mice.

Sources:

Russell Tofts, Spiny Mice.

Burton, M., & Burton, R. (1980) The New International Wildlife Encyclopedia (Purnell).

Monash University, Australia.

Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University.

 

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