Above Picture: A mouse forages in the snow on Marion Island in the late 1980s; photograph by Ivan Dalgleish
This, the second part of a planned four-part series on the introduced House Mice of Marion Island, considers the period from the annexation of the island by South Africa in 1948 up to the publication of the first scientific paper about the mice in 1974. The first part dealt with the island’s discovery in 1773 and showed that the mice were already on the island by 1818, thought introduced inadvertently by sealers. Between Webfoot’s account for 1818 until annexation there are hardly any historical records, published or unpublished, for the mice. Scientists from the Challenger Expedition spent Boxing Day of 1873 ashore but did not spot mice, although the expedition’s botanist H.N. Moseley wrote “I saw a hole with ears of grass dragged into it, and like a mouse’s”. Doubtless if they had overnighted, they would have obtained confirmation! Some decades later the shipwrecked sealers from the Solglimt in 1908 would have had the huts they built in Ship’s Cove invaded by mice.
In December 1947 South Africa sent a navy frigate to annex Marion and Prince Edward Islands. With limited capacity to “hang around”, a 14-man shore party was left on Marion under canvas for most of January 1948 until a relief ship could arrive. The temporary tarpaulin shelters they used were given the name “The Mouse Inn’ to which a wag added “(In Everything)” to the name board after a mouse was found in the soup.
The first team leader, Allan Crawford, wrote that the “lower slopes of the island were plagued” by mice. Once the first buildings of the new weather station were erected, they were invaded by mice. In consequence a young ship’s cat was leant to the newly built weather station from the HMSAS Natal to address the problem. A photograph shows it fast asleep on the team leader’s bunk, so it presumably had little effect on the mice before it was returned (as it is assumed) to the South African Navy. The reporter John Marsh, in his book on the annexation No Pathway Here, says the cat made no attempt to chase the mice, even licking one “reassuringly” that ran underneath it. Nevertheless, later in the year domestic cats were deliberately brought to the island to control mice in the buildings. As they were able to breed it was inevitable that their offspring would go feral, with devastating effects on the island’s smaller seabirds. Fortunately, after a successful eradication programme by mid-1990s the cats were no more, leaving the mice “in charge” once again.
The first biologist to stay on the island, over the summer of 1951/52, was R.W. ‘Bob’ Rand, who is also believed to be the first team member to walk right round the coast. He wrote that the “mice are widespread over the coastal plain” where he reported they were preyed upon by the feral cats. In contrast, in a typescript report labelled as “CONFIDENTIAL”, Rand complained about the “nearly two dozen” domesticated cats living in one bedroom in the weather station, saying they were overfed and that “their idle habits are encouraged and they are not stimulated to catch mice”. The first scientific expedition to the Prince Edward Islands over 1965/66 also noted the mice as being widespread on Marion. Botanist Brian Huntley wrote in his diary while camping “After a hectic night of Muridae (mouse) invasions we woke at 7.30 a.m. to find a light gale blowing, with heavy mist and drizzle”.
In the 1970s coastal field huts were erected around the island. As could be expected, they were taken over by mice, looking for warmth, nest material and food scraps (as well as gnawing on the candles used for lighting), requiring setting traps for them on a nightly basis. Even the later-built mountain hut 790 m up at Katedraalkrans, and above the vascular vegetation line, has its population of mice.
The first study of Marion’s mice was undertaken in 1973/74 by seal biologists Douglas Anderson and Pat Condy, who mapped sightings they made in the field. They wrote in the now defunct South African Journal of Antarctic Research “From evidence of nests and runways it is apparent that mice occur all over the coastal plains and up to 300 m above sea level”. They also mention mice being reported in the “higher mountains” above 1000 m near the island’s second-highest peak now known as Resolution, after Captain Cook’s ship. The authors also gave information on habitat preferences and feeding habits, concluding that the mice are one of the island’s “major herbivores”.
Webfoot reported mice as already being widespread, including in the interior mountains, in 1818. This assertion is confirmed for the next 150 years by the above accounts. The next in this series will describe biological studies on Marion’s mice, including for two MSc degrees, from 1974 until 1995, when a first workshop was held to consider the desirability of their eradication.
With grateful thanks to Martin Crawford, Ivan Dalgleish, the late Niek Gremmen and Brian Huntley for the use of their historical photographs via Ria Olivier, Antarctic Legacy of South Africa.
Anderson, G.D. & Condy, P.R. 1974. A note on the feral House Cat and House Mouse on Marion Island. South African Journal of Antarctic Research 4: 58-61.
Brunton, E.V. 2004. The Challenger Expedition, 1872-1876. A Visual Index – Second Edition. London; The Natural History Museum. 242 pp.
Cooper, J. 2008. Human history. In: Chown, S.L. & Froneman, P.W. (Eds). The Prince Edward Islands: Land-Sea Interactions in a Changing Ecosystem. Stellenbosch: Sun PReSS. pp. 331-350.
Cooper, J. & Avery, G. 1986. Historical sites at the Prince Edward Islands. South African National Scientific Programmes Report 128: 1-81.
Crawford, A. 1982. Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties. Edinburgh & London: Charles Skilton. 256 pp.
Huntley, B. J. 2016. Exploring a Sub-Antarctic Wilderness. A Personal Narrative of the First Biological & Geological Expedition to Marion and Prince Edward Islands 1965/1966. Stellenbosch: Antarctic Legacy of South Africa. 268 pp.
Marsh, J.H. 1948. No Pathway Here. Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins. 200 pp.
Moseley, H.N. 1944. Notes by a Naturalist made during the Voyage of H.M.S. “Challenger”. London: T. Werner Laurie. 540 pp.
Rand, R.W. 1952. Marion Island. Report from the Biologist of the Government Guano Islands. Typescript report dated 30 July 1952. 18 pp.
Rand, R.W. 1954. Notes on the birds of Marion Island. Ibis 96: 173-206.
Terauds, A., Cooper, J., Chown, S.L. & Ryan, P. 2010. Marion & Prince Edward. Africa’s Southern Islands. Stellenbosch: SUN PReSS. 176 pp.
Watkins, B.P. & Cooper, J. 1986. Introduction, present status and control of alien species at the Prince Edward Islands, sub-Antarctic. South African Journal of Antarctic Research 16: 86-94.
“Webfoot” [= William Dane Phelps] 1871. Fore and Aft: or Leaves from the Life of an Old Sailor. Boston: Nicholls & Hall. 359 pp.
John Cooper, Mouse-Free Marion Project News Correspondent, 15 March 2022