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Scaly-Tailed Evacuees Shelter from Storms Past

Shortly before Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast on Sept. 16, 2004, wreaking havoc across Alabama, Florida, and Virginia, a few employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hurried to the beach and scooped up eight tiny rodents.

The critters were Perdido Key beach mice, and the officials raced to evacuate them because only a few hundred remained in the wild. And those lived exclusively in sand-dune tunnels on a barrier island near Pensacola, Fla., in the path of the hurricane on the state's panhandle. Listed as an endangered species in 1985, Perdido Key beach mice, whose light-colored coat blends in with the region's white sand beaches, have suffered from previous storms; the species was nearly wiped out by hurricanes Erin and Opal in the mid-1990s.

But working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida officials spirited the eight mice away to a genetic center at the University of South Carolina, where more were soon born. When they outgrew their temporary home, the evacuated mice and their offspring moved to four different Florida zoos. One of them was the Santa Fe Community College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville; the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums has just recognized the zoo's Perdido Key mouse program as one of the top 10 conservation projects of 2007.

The zoo worked out a detailed plan to save the subspecies from extinction - changing an area of the zoo to appear night-like, for instance, because the mice are nocturnal -- and now houses 14 Perdido Key mice.

As important as saving the species, however, is preserving the natural habitat the mice help to create.

"When Ivan hit, the houses without Perdido Key mice living in front of them were devastated," the zoo's Kathy Russell told the Gainesville Sun, "because there were no native plants growing on those dunes, which got swept away."

To hear Russell discuss the mice further, watch this: