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Two common southern African mice species, Mastomys coucha and M. natalensis, are widely distributed throughout the subregion and overlap in many areas. They also share a high degree of morphological similarity, making them impossible to distinguish in the field at present. These multimammate mice are documented carriers of serious disease vectors causing Lassa fever, plague and encephalomyocarditis, which coupled to their cohabitation with humans in many areas, could pose a significant health risk. A preliminary study reported the presence of isozyme markers at three loci (GPI-2, PT-2, -3) in one population each of M. coucha and M. natalensis. Two additional populations (from the Vaal Dam and Richards Bay) were sampled to determine the reliability of these markers, and to seek additional genetic markers.
Fifteen proteins or enzymes provided interpretable results at a total of 39 loci. Additional fixed allele differences between the species were detected at AAT-1, ADH, EST-1, PGD-1, Hb-1 and -2. Average heterozygosities for M. coucha and M. natalensis were calculated as 0.018 and 0.032 respectively, with a mean genetic distance between the species of 0.26.
The confirmation of the isozyme and the detection of the additional allozyme markers are important contributions to the identification of these two medical and agricultural pest species.