Barbara König

Queen of Mice

Over the past 18 years, Barbara König has spent hundreds of hours observing house mice in the wild. This kind of old-school research in the field remains the cornerstone of the behavioral biologist’s work, even though she has now started using state-of-the-art tracking technologies. In 2002, König set up a population of 12 mice in an abandoned barn. She and her team have been investigating the reproductive and social behavior of around 8,000 rodents ever since, developing genealogical trees and collecting physiological and morphological data. Their research has provided a gigantic and unprecedented treasure trove of data and resulted in some remarkable findings. They have found, for example, that competition to reproduce is just as strong among females as it is among males, and that when it comes to rearing offspring, cooperating with other female mice is an evolutionary necessity for young mothers. Older females are more successful at raising their young on their own. König will retire next year, and when she does, her mammoth life’s project will come to an end. She will give up the barn and dissolve the mouse colony. “I’m still in emotional denial,” says König, who is now putting even more effort into her final goal: Deciphering the entire genome of all individual mice in the population.

Alice Werner; English translation by Philip Isler