MICE HAVE ESCAPE TUNNELS
were standing in a field of recently planted longleaf pine trees when
I handed my grandson Nick the shovel and said, Dig right there
where the hole is. He did so, and a minute later, out of the ground
popped three little mice, scampering away into the underbrush. How
did you know they would be there? I answered, Mike Smith,
taught me how to find them.
have dedicated columns to other well-known biologists such as Eugene
Odum and Joab Thomas who influenced my career as well as the profession
itself. Michael H. Smith, who died on November 15, 2017, at the age
of 79 fits into this category--another loss to the field of ecology,
as well as my loss of a longtime friend and colleague. Prior to becoming
a professor at the University of Georgia, Mike did his doctoral dissertation
research on the biology of these fascinating little mice at the University
of Florida. He passed some of what he had learned on to me when he and
I were young faculty members together in the 1960s.
I only dug up one burrow. Our intent was not to destroy an animals
home but to confirm that the mouse-size holes with a little apron of
sand outside belonged to a native mammal, the old-field mouse. These
are not mice you would ever see in a house. They are wild ones that
live in fields and on beaches. As Nick dug, the mice burst out of sandy
soil a few feet away from where the hole was. As Mike discovered while
he was a student, they do this via an escape tunnel they dig upward
from the underground burrow. The escape route has no opening to the
outside but ends an inch or so beneath the surface, allowing them to
quickly push their way out if a snake enters the burrow looking for
a meal. No babies were in the burrow cavity, so all the little sand
diggers were old enough to create new burrows nearby.
concentrate on specific groups of plants or animals. Mike Smith was
a mammalogist, as well as an accomplished geneticist and an expert on
radiation ecology. He was internationally known as one of the first
ecologists to investigate the effects of radiation on the ecosystems
surrounding Chernobyl after the nuclear reactor accident. In an earlier
study, he compared the levels of radiocesium in deer from the Department
of Energys Savannah River Site with deer taken from other areas
in the region. Radioactive cesium, a common by-product of nuclear reactors,
has been measured in deer in many parts of the Southeast since the 1960s.
The cesium counts from deer at all research sites were essentially the
same and consistently low. One of his conclusions was that the primary
source of measurable cesium in deer and other wildlife on the SRS was
from fallout that occurred during Cold War atmospheric bomb testing,
not from the nuclear facility.
research was exemplary, but much of his claim to ecological fame came
from being director of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology
Laboratory for a quarter of a century. Under his leadership, SREL not
only was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for some of its
classic research but was also recognized as a premier ecological laboratory
in a worldwide review of scientific institutions by Encyclopedia Britannica.
Mikes administrative guidance, his mentoring of new students and
faculty and his own research led to SRELs success and recognition.
He demonstrated how a professor of ecology could simultaneously conduct
ground-breaking research and manage a preeminent scientific laboratory.
left many legacies beyond his research and the development of what arguably
became the best-known field ecology laboratory in the world. I appreciate
them all. But I particularly appreciated being able to show my grandson
how to find old-field mice because Mike Smith had once showed me.
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