Such a riddle probably has you imagining a ferocious animal like a lion, stalking the African savanna to bring down a succulent antelope. But no, our mystery animal is much, much smaller than a lion. It weighs only half an ounce (14 g)! Including its tail, it is only about 5 inches (13 cm) long.

Northern Grasshopper Mouse
Northern Grasshopper Mouse (Onychomys Leucogaster). Photographed by acclaimed wildlife photographer and writer, Dr. William J. Weber.


In spite of its small size, this little rodent is definitely a carnivore. In this it is different from most of the hundreds of other species like it, which eat plants. Our mystery animal needs meat! As soon as darkness falls, it creeps from its underground home and begins tracking its prey.


Some of this animal’s habits remind me of a hound’s. While tracking, it runs along with its nose to the ground. Also like a hound, it gets excited when it scents prey. However, to say that it starts barking would be an exaggeration. One person did describe this rodent’s voice as a sort of bark, but I’m thinking it’s closer to a series of squeaks or howls. I really don’t know how the creature ever catches anything if it gets noisy once on a victim’s trail.


But this tiny hunter is fast. As soon as it’s within striking distance of the prey, it takes a mighty leap. Sharp teeth pierce the victim’s brain—and the fight is over.


Okay, Wondernose, you wonder what animals might fall prey to such a tiny hunter. Well, our mystery rodent likes grasshoppers. In fact, it likes them so well that the word “grasshopper” is part of its name. Scorpions, worms, and other such juicy creatures help to round out the hunter’s meal. Farmers like our mystery animals; they get rid of many pests each night.


Would you like me to describe this rodent’s appearance, Wondernose? Well, its tail is long, round, and thin. It has sparkling eyes that stand out like beads from its furry head. The snout is pointed, and—


A mouse! Yes, of course. And the full name is grasshopper mouse. From my description, you can see that it’s a lot like our common house mice. The biggest difference is in what it eats. Then, too, grasshopper mice are the only mice that make howling noises at night.

Northern Grasshopper Mouse
Northern Grasshopper Mouse (Onychomys Leucogaster). Photographed by acclaimed wildlife photographer and writer, Dr. William J. Weber.


You say you’ve heard house mice making noises at night too? Yes, but those were squeaks. You could never call that a “howling” noise. I’m sort of glad that grasshopper mice prefer not to live in houses.


Their homes, as I’ve mentioned, are in underground burrows. With their sharp claws, grasshopper mice are good at digging and can excavate their own tunnels. However, they are also known to take over burrows abandoned by other rodents such as gophers.


Apparently there are three main kinds of grasshopper mice. The one group lives in western North America. Its fur is buff-colored, with an underside of white. Down in the hot, dry deserts of the Southwest we find the other two kinds. These are called scorpion mice rather than grasshopper mice. But their habits are very similar.


Do grasshopper mice hibernate? No, they’re active all winter long. Apparently they store up some food in the fall. Also, their tails grow fatter in the fall. Can you guess why this would be so, ?
Correct. If other food gets scarce, a grasshopper mouse can live off its own fat. And food can certainly get scarce for mice that live in the colder, snowier parts of the country.

Baby grasshopper mice are tiny. They weigh only about a tenth of an ounce (3 g) at first. Two weeks pass before their eyes open. But in another ten days, they’ll be out foraging for food. Grasshoppers, beware!


Wondernose, have you ever wondered where the word “mouse” originated? It comes from an old Sanskrit word meaning “thief.” Now what connection would that have?


Of course. Mice—at least the mice you and I meet in our houses—are thieves. They “nibble things they shouldn’t touch,” as the old poem says. But let’s not forget that the world also contains valuable mice like the grasshopper mice, who oblige farmers by destroying harmful insects.