The Natural History of Model Organisms: Peromyscus mice as a model for studying natural variation

  1. Nicole L Bedford
  2. Hopi E Hoekstra  Is a corresponding author
  1. Harvard University, United States
4 figures, 1 video and 2 tables


Simplified phylogeny depicting the relationships among muroid rodent model organisms.

Peromyscus belong to the Cricetidae family, which includes voles (Microtus), hamsters (Mesocricetus), and New World rats and mice. Old World rats and mice belong to the Muridae family, which include the familiar laboratory rat (Rattus norvegicus) and mouse (Mus musculus). Muridae and Cricetidae diverged roughly 25 million years ago. Schematic based on based on phylogeny data from Steppan et al. (2004). Image credit, Nicole Bedford and Hopi Hoekstra.
North American distributions of eight Peromyscus species currently maintained as outbred laboratory stocks (based on data from Hall, 1981).

Some ranges are narrow and others are extensive, with many overlapping to a large extent. Simplified tree indicating phylogenetic relationships among taxa is shown; branch lengths are arbitrary (based on data from Bradley et al., 2007). The most widespread and ecologically diverse group is also the best represented in the laboratory: six P. maniculatus subspecies are maintained in laboratories across the United States. Collecting localities of colony founders are indicated by numbered squares (see also Table 2). Image credit, Nicole Bedford and Hopi Hoekstra.
The ecology of Peromyscus varies considerably both within and among species.

(A) The forest-dwelling deer mouse, P. maniculatus nubiterrae, perches high on a tree branch in Southwestern Pennsylvania. (B) The beach mouse, P. polionotus phasma, takes shelter among the dune grasses on Florida's Atlantic coast. (C) Its mainland counterpart, the oldfield mouse, P. polionotus sumneri, is typically found in fallow fields and is sympatric with the cotton mouse, P. gossypinus (D), which occupies adjacent stands of long leaf pine. Image credits: A, Evan P Kingsley; B, JB Miller; C, D, Nicole Bedford.
Genetic crosses between the pale beach mouse P. polionotus leucocephalus (top row left) and the darker mainland mouse P. p. polionotus (top row right) result in first-generation F1 hybrids, all with intermediate coloration (second row).

Intercrosses between F1 hybrids produce a variable F2 generation, showing a continuous distribution of pigmentation phenotypes ranging from light to dark (third and fourth rows; Steiner et al., 2007). This segregation pattern—initially described by Francis Sumner—is among the earliest empirical evidence that several discrete loci may collectively contribute to a quantitative trait (Dobzhansky, 1937; see also Box 1). Image credit, Nicole Bedford and Hopi Hoekstra.


Video 1
Innate burrowing behavior in Peromyscus can be directly observed in a laboratory setting. Here, P. polionotus is busy constructing the long entrance tunnel of its complex burrow. Video credit, Nicole Bedford and Hopi Hoekstra.


Table 1

Museums with the largest collections of Peromyscus specimens
CollectionLocationNo. specimens
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural HistoryWashington, DC38,406
Museum of Vertebrate ZoologyBerkeley, CA34,131
American Museum of Natural HistoryNew York, NY19,234
Field MuseumChicago, IL8939
Museum of Comparative ZoologyCambridge, MA7754
Canadian Museum of NatureOttawa, ON6315
Academy of Natural SciencePhiladelphia, PA2425
Natural History MuseumLondon, UK2238
Table 2

Current laboratory colonies of Peromyscus
SpeciesYearSource populationLocation
1P. californicus insignis1979–1987Santa Monica Mts., CAPGSC
2P. eremicus sp.1993Tucson, AZPGSC
3P. polionotus subgriseus1952Ocala National Forest, FLPGSC
4aP. maniculatus bairdii1946–1948Ann Arbor, MIPGSC
4bP. m. sonoriensis1995White Mtn. Research Station, CAPGSC
4cP. m. rufinus1998Manzano Mtn., NMUNM
4dP. m. nubiterrae2010Powder Mill Nature Reserve, PAHU
4eP. m. rufinus2014Mt. Evans, COUIUC
4fP. m. nebrascensis2014Lincoln, NEUIUC
5P. leucopus sp.1982–1985Linville, NCPGSC
6P. gossypinus gossypinus2009Jackson County, FLHU
7P. melanophrys xenerus1970–1978Zacatecas, MexicoUIUC
8P. aztecus hylocetes1986Sierra Chincua, MexicoUIUC
  1. The year and population from which the founders were collected are noted. Numbers refer to collecting localities shown in Figure 2. PGSC: Peromyscus Genetic Stock Center; UNM: University of New Mexico; HU: Harvard University; UIUC: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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  1. Nicole L Bedford
  2. Hopi E Hoekstra
The Natural History of Model Organisms: Peromyscus mice as a model for studying natural variation
eLife 4:e06813.