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Shortly after Fernandes arrived in Miami, he received an e-mail asking for people to help out on a small mammal survey, mostly studying beach mice. Soon he began surveying the Southeastern mouse on the national seashore by Cape Canaveral — one of the few places on Florida's east coast that hasn't been developed — and his findings startled him. "It was supposed to be everywhere out there. But what I found — what I didn't find, rather, was beach mice. In the whole national seashore, I only found beach mice in two locations."
Fernandes was hooked. He began spending every free moment trying to find and count them. He worked alone, spending days trudging through the dunes on Cape Canaveral and setting traps. When he caught a mouse, he tagged its ear with a tiny aluminum marker, and then let it go.
"After a while, if you capture an animal a certain number of times, you get to know him," he recalls. "Like if he bites you — you remember, That's a biter! With one mouse, this very curious thing happened: I let it go and it didn't run away. It just came back and kind of stared at me. I would kneel down and look at it, and we'd be looking right at each other."
But as time went by, Fernandes became frustrated. The population seemed to be declining, and he couldn't get enough data for a proper study. Then there was the bureaucracy. "There was this endless permitting procedure," he remembers bitterly. "When I finally got through that, there was all this competition between people working on beach mice."
Often, scientists were unwilling to share information. At one point, Fernandes put out an open offer to reanalyze older mouse data using new technologies. He'd do all the work for free. "Not one person asked," he says. "Nobody was interested."
There were money problems too. Fernandes applied for at least 10 grants with places like the National Park Service, but was repeatedly denied. "Studying the long-term habits of a mouse can't compare to ... a fun project with immediate results — pulling weeds or something," he admits. "There's this idea that when an animal becomes endangered, all these scientists rush in with a big plan — but that's not really true."
As troubles mounted, Fernandes began feeling pressure from his advisor, his family, and his fiancée to find a new project.
"I think ... we all want him to succeed in getting his Ph.D.," says Katrina Herring, Fernandes fiancée. "There were just so many obstacles. And that was our worry — because his dedication was so strong, he was willing to risk everything."
Finally, a few months ago, Fernandes surrendered when the population he was studying at the Canaveral National Seashore disappeared. The area will most likely be recolonized in time, he says, but for now, the dwindling population he was recording is gone.
His advisor, Donald DeAngeles, agreed to allow him to switch to studying small mammals in the Everglades. Fernandes expects to finish his dissertation about a year from now.
But he hasn't given up. He fears the Southeastern beach mouse might be in greater danger than scientists realize. "It's a fascinating mouse with a fascinating history," he says. "And it matters."