Different animals handle winter in different ways. Some have built up thick winter coats and hide food to get them through the season. Some have migrated to warmer locations. Some are taking long naps but waking up from their deep sleep every so often to stretch and eat. A few animals will actually hibernate.
True hibernators are different from deep sleepers because they do not wake up until springtime. True hibernators must store up lots of fat, and when they go to sleep, both their heart rate and breathing slow down.
Here in Will County, we do not have many true hibernators. Several of our bat species will first migrate to caves in southern Illinois and then hibernate. Woodchucks, our forest preserve mascot, will hibernate. And the only other species to do so in our area is the meadow jumping mouse. Our other mice species stay active all winter long.
Don’t be jealous, but this little mouse may spend up to half the year fast asleep! While you will not see them on a winter stroll, let’s learn more about this tiny little hibernator.
A category all their own
While all mice belong to the order of rodents, our Illinois residents are categorized into three distinct families. There is a family of old-world mice and rats that contains just the brown rat and house mouse. There is a large family that contains almost every other rat, mouse, vole, lemming and even muskrat. And then there is the Family Dipodidae, which include all jumping mice. In Illinois there is only one, the meadow jumping mouse, and it is a statewide resident.
The meadow jumping mouse is tiny. Its body is only 3 inches to 3½ inches long. The tail is longer than its body, anywhere from 4½ inches to 6 inches long. They have coarse brown fur on their backs, their sides are orangish and their bellies are white.
Words to know
Coarse: Rough in texture.
Distinguishing: A characteristic that serves to identify something.
Locomotion: Movement or the ability to move from one place to another.
Solitary: Done or existing alone.
Their tails are brown on top and white on the bottom. This is a distinguishing feature. Of the two mice species they can be most confused with, one has an all-white tail and the other’s tail is white only at the tip.
The other clue it is a meadow jumping mouse are its feet. Their front feet are small and delicate with four toes. Their back feet are larger and have five toes and super long heels.
Modes of movement
As its name implies, this mouse moves mostly by jumping. It is a form of locomotion known as saltation. Saltatorial animals include kangaroos, rabbits, frogs and a few species of rodents. Meadow jumping mice can crawl along on all four legs, but they mostly travel on land with small hops. When startled or in danger, they can leap 2 feet to 3 feet!
Although they hop most often, these mice are also great at climbing, digging and swimming.
Moisture seems to be the No. 1 requirement for this mouse. They like humidity and live in grasslands and fields, often near lakes, ponds and rivers. They do not like forests.
Meadow jumping mice are mostly granivores. That means their favorite food is seeds. But they will also eat berries, fungi, nuts, and, in the springtime especially, a variety of caterpillars and beetles.
They are solitary creatures but not aggressive toward each other. They are mostly active at night and will journey long distances in search of the perfect habitat. Predators include owls, hawks, foxes and weasels.
Babies are born altricial, which means completely helpless. But in just four to five weeks, these mice are independent. A 2-month-old meadow jumping mouse is ready to have babies of its own. An older mouse might have a litter in the spring and one more in the summer. If they survive the first year, they may live up to three years on average, sometimes a bit longer.
While their nocturnal lifestyle and long winter sleep make the meadow jumping mouse difficult to spot on any outdoor adventure, it is nice knowing such a unique little critter is living amongst us!
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