From black rhinos in southern Africa to orang-utans in southeast Asia, rare mammals have become iconic symbols for wildlife conservation. But did you know that there is a critically endangered mammal in the heart of Europe? The Bavarian pine vole (Microtus bavaricus) was presumed extinct decades ago but rediscovered in 2004. One of the few endemic species in Central Europe, it is in danger of dying out completely due to intense management of forests.
Tiny and very rare vole
The Bavarian pine vole is tiny, measuring only 10cm in length and weighing around 18-28g. With its drab fur, tiny teeth and short tail, it can only be differentiated from the closely related Alpine and Liechtenstein’s pine vole species by genetic or comparative morphological analysis. The species evolved in the last Ice Age as its population was isolated in the the Rofan mountains. The animals live in underground passageway and are herbivores, feeding on roots, grasses and herbs.
The Bavarian pine vole is endemic to the Northern Limestone Alps in Austria and parts of southern Bavaria. It was first discovered in 1962 in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. 23 individuals were caught in a mousetrap and identified as a new species from various morphological characteristics. Despite a few unconfirmed sightings in Tyrol in the 1970s, no specimens were officially recorded. In the 1980s, a hospital was built on the area where it was originally found, effectively destroying the species’ only known habitat. After fruitless searches, scientists declared the Bavarian pine vole extinct.
In 2004, decades after its first sighting, Friederike Spitzenberger from the Natural History Museum of Vienna rediscovered the tiny species in Austria. After finding genetic evidence for its presence in the Rofan mountain range a few years prior, she caught a tiny rodent in a live trap. Genetic studies and comparisons with a stuffed specimen confirmed that this was a separate species. Despite extensive efforts, including citizen searches in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, researchers did not find any populations of the Bavarian pine vole in Bavaria.
The animal is extremely rare. Probably only a few hundred of them exist. We now have to make sure they don’t die out.
Protecting a critically endangered European species
The only known population of this species lives in a few hectares of northern Tyrol near the German-Austrian border. Its habitat is a montane, mixed open forest with several wild streams. Although naturally managed at the time of the vole’s rediscovery, much of this wooded area has been cleared for cattle grazing. The remaining forest is unprotected and threatened by logging.
Due to its extremely restricted range and habitat disappearance, the IUCN has designated Microtus bavaricus as “Critically Endangered”. This makes it one of the only critically endangered mammals in Europe, along with the European mink and European hamster. Unlike these two species however, the Bavarian pine vole is not protected. Regular monitoring has taken place since 2014 in the Rofan mountains. The Alpenzoo in Innsbruck has also kept a few of the critically endangered animals since last year. They are not yet exhibited publicly but are carefully researched by biologists and veterinarians. This June, the zoo rejoiced as a pair of the voles bore two females.
We are as overjoyed as little children about this offspring, for this vole is more threatened than the tiger, snow leopard or panda.
Although the conservation of the Bavarian pine vole is in its early stages, we can hope that more initiatives are put in place for its protection. After all, finding a mammal species this rare in the heart of Europe is truly remarkable.