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On a recent Sunday afternoon, biologist Miguel Fernandes stands on a five-foot-wide oceanfront sand dune in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, stroking a slender stalk of sea oats and cursing. "Look at this shit," he says, yanking his head back toward the never-ending line of hotels and condos that hugs the coast. "Who's gonna give a fuck about a little mouse?"
It's a moot point, at least around here. The Southeastern beach mouse, which Fernandes spent three years trying to save, is long gone from Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties, and, indeed, is almost gone altogether. There haven't been many of the furry, pale mice anywhere in South Florida since the 1940s, when development and its trappings (people bring cats, and cats eat mice) arrived in force. The last holdouts live in a few places in Volusia County and the Canaveral National Seashore — and they might soon be gone from there.
"You know, I was just looking at some pictures on my computer — and it was pretty hard for me," Fernandes says sadly. "I really wonder what their fate will be. I'm not very optimistic."
Beach mice are a subspecies of what is commonly known as the field mouse. The eight subspecies — or the seven that still exist, anyway — occur in the Southeastern United States, mostly on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Unlike beach boys, beach mice don't spend much time on the sand. They dwell in the grassy dunes that once commonly stretched out from beaches. These provide terrain for burrowing and food. The mice are about two inches long on average — smaller and rounder than the house variety, with big round eyes and enormous (relatively speaking) ears. They are, even the most ardent rodent hater would surely concede, adorable.
But they are small, vulnerable, and prone to rapid population fluctuations. Before the tidal wave of development, these fluctuations weren't particularly dangerous; if a group died out in one area, it was soon recolonized. But for the past 70 years, as dunes were destroyed to make way for high-rises, things changed.
These days, of the eight subspecies of beach mice that once roamed the Southeastern United States, one is extinct and six are endangered — meaning they are in even worse shape than the Southeastern beach mouse, which is listed by the federal government as threatened. The critters have been the subject of endless squabbling between environmentalists and developers. In 2006 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed designating about 6,200 acres of coastal Alabama and the Florida panhandle as critical habitat for three endangered subspecies, one of which — the Perdido Key beach mouse — was down to about 30 individuals. Much grumbling ensued, but the Sierra Club filed suit, and the land received special protection.
Trying to save the mice "is a pretty thankless job," admits Sandra Sneckenberger, an FWS ecologist in Panama City. "You just hear every day: 'Why are you bothering?' For people who don't know about beach mice, it comes as a shock that their plans need to be modified because of a mouse that lives on the beach.... But to me, it's part of our responsibility, just as humans, to protect everything for the future."
For Miguel Fernandes, protecting the beach mouse became personal. Now 36 years old, with handsome features and an athletic build, he was born in Angola to Portuguese-Angolan parents, who fled the civil war there and landed in Massachusetts when Fernandes was age 14. By then he already knew he wanted to be a scientist. "My high school class had a wilderness club that took inner-city kids camping," he recalls. "And the first time I ever went camping, I saw a vole. I was freezing my ass off — I actually got frostbite on that trip — but I came home glowing."
Later he would become interested in small mammals while he was studying voles — tiny mouselike rodents that are cousins of lemmings and muskrats — at the University of Montana. "I found small mammals fascinating," he says. "I don't know, I guess it was a calling for me." In 2003 his studies led him to the University of Miami to pursue doctoral work on the creatures.
Fernandes has always had a maverick streak. His stories, which he recounts with a cutting, slightly raunchy sense of humor, feature him going solo to do something outlandish, slightly risky, possibly illegal, and irresistibly noble. One time he had his wallet stolen in a diner. His green card was inside. The second he noticed it missing, Fernandes bolted into the bathroom and pinned a man he deemed the most likely suspect against a urinal, demanding the wallet back. The real culprit, a friend of Fernandes's target, burst out of a stall, bolted to his car, and sped off.
Fernandes spent the next week tracking down the thief, ultimately finding his picture in a high school yearbook in the public library. He called the man at 6 a.m. to demand the wallet back, or else. In the end, Fernandes had to stare down a posse of the crook's thug friends to get it.
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."