The Vikings Brought Another Group of Invaders to Britain: Mice

By Eliza Strickland | October 1, 2008 12:35 pm

Viking shipWhen the Vikings set sail for the British Isles they had small, furry stowaways aboard their ships, and researchers say that the descendants of those mice can offer clues about the voyages taken by Viking seafarers. A new study examined the DNA of house mice throughout the British Isles and found that mice from areas where the Vikings are thought to have settled are genetically distinct from mice in other regions.

Says study coauthor Cath Jones: “We have found that most of the mice in the north of Scotland – from Orkney, Shetland and Caithness – are all of one very similar type that we have named the Orkney lineage and they are very similar to Norwegian mice. And the only explanation for that is that when the Vikings came raping and pillaging to Scotland they took their house mice with them” [Scotsman].

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team looked at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) — genetic material handed down by the maternal line — found in preserved tissues from 310 mice found in 96 locations in Britain [AFP]. The house mice in the north of Scotland showed clear genetic similarities to Norwegian mice, while mice in the south of England and other regions were similar to those found in Germany.

The grain-eating house mouse (more properly called Mus musculus domesticus) is dependent on dense human settlements for food, and therefore serves as an indicator for human migration and settlement. Lead researcher Jeremy Searle says the new mouse genetic information indicates that northern Scotland was largely uninhabited when the Vikings sailed up, and that the Vikings established stable towns there that allowed the mice to proliferate. Professor Searle said future studies with mice could help document more fine-scale Viking movements such as the colonisation of different parts of Faroe, Iceland and even North America [BBC News].

Learn how modern sailors fared in a recreated Viking ship in the DISCOVER article “The Return of the Vikings,” and probe the mystery of why a thriving colony disappeared from Greenland in the article “Vanished Vikings.”

Image: flickr/karla kaulfuss

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • NoAstronomer

    I’m pretty sure that if you consult the relevant literature you’ll find that it was, in fact, the mice who brought the Vikings to the British Isles.

  • Sueblimely

    I think it was interest in the Vikings, sparked long ago by visiting the Jorvic museum in York, that made me interested in learning more about studies into Human Origin and migration patterns. DNA studies are bringing out so much new information and now even mice DNA can give us clues.

    @ NoAstronomer – I laughed at your reply – I see you put a lot of Deep Thought into it.

  • deeis de Shon

    Then the answer is 42. It was the mice all the time.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar