by Hannah Schardt
When is a mouse not a mouse at all? When it's a dormouse! Despite its name and mousey looks, this cute little rodent is in a class all its own. With its furry tail and tree-loving ways, a dormouse is actually more like a squirrel than a mouse.
There are 29 different species of dormice. Most of them live in Europe, though some are found in Asia and Africa. The cute little creatures on the pages above are garden dormice that live in Germany. It's easy to tell them from other dormice: They have big ears, black eye markings, and white tassels on the tips of their tails.
All dormice are built for life in the trees. They have powerful feet with sharp claws—great for scurrying up into a tree. Good thing, too: Trees are where dormice find much of their food, make their nests, and hide from predators such as owls.
NEST IS BEST
Late spring is family time for garden dormice. That's when moms have their babies—usually three to eight of them each. The babies are born hairless and weak (above left). Their eyes don't even open until they are more than two weeks old! For the first month and a half, they stick close to their moms and to each other. The baby dormice at top right snuggle together for warmth. They spend most of their time sleeping, nursing, and growing. A fully grown garden dormouse is about the size of a chipmunk. In the wild, a dormouse can live up to five years—a pretty long life for a rodent.
THREATS TO SURVIVAL
Of course, some dormice don't live that long. That's because they make tasty little meals for owls and other predators. But predators aren't their biggest threat. Many different kinds of dormice are losing their forest homes as people build more houses and businesses. In the last 30 years, garden dormice have vanished from half of the places they used to live. That's why people are working to save as many dormice as they can.
BRINGING UP BABIES
"Open wide, little one!" Forest ranger Klaus Echle was studying a forest in his country, Germany, when he found six baby garden dormice. Their mother had died. Klaus rescued the helpless babies and raised them by hand. He and his wife fed the babies kitten formula with an eyedropper. After several weeks, the babies were big and strong enough to be released into the wild. But by then, Klaus was hooked: He continued studying and photographing dormice—including the ones in this article.
Remember: If you see a wild animal that seems to need help, ask an adult to contact a wildlife rescue group. Don't try to save it on your own!
YUM. . .SPIDERS!
For a dormouse, a dark woodpile is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. That's because it's a great place to find bugs and such. And if you're a dormouse, that's a good thing. Dormice eat spiders, beetles, and other creepy-crawlies. Of course, this dormouse (center photo) may just be looking for a safe place to hide—so it doesn't become someone else's meal!
Creepy-crawlies aren't all dormice eat. They also snack on berries, fruits, and nuts such as the beech nuts above left. In the summer, dormice gorge on these goodies. They need to fatten up—sometimes doubling their weight—for the long winter sleep ahead.
TIME FOR A NAP
Dormice are nocturnal. That means they hunt at night and usually snooze the day away. And sleeping is one of the things dormice do best. In the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the dormouse sleeps so deeply—and so often—that the Mad Hatter uses him as a cushion!
The sacked-out-dormouse (in the circle above) looks pretty cushion-like, too. Curled into a tight ball, it is in a long, deep sleep called hibernation. Garden dormice usually hibernate from October until April. Their body temperatures drop very low. Their hearts beat slowly. This helps them save their energy while food is scarce. Sometimes they wake briefly to scarf down food stores nearby. But mostly, they live off their fat.
Hibernation isn't the only time dormice conk out to save energy. Even in the summer, if the weather is bad and food is hard to find, a dormouse may fall into torpor. Torpor is almost like a mini-hibernation. A torpid dormouse's heart rate and body temperature drop. But this deep sleep lasts less than a day. In a few hours, the dormouse is awake, ready for a meal—and another nap. It's no wonder dormice are so adorable. They spend most of their lives getting their beauty rest!