From “Tom and Jerry” to “The Farmer in the Dell,” pop culture is awash with cheese-loving mice. In fact, there’s even a mouse mascot with the food in its name: Chuck E. Cheese.
But do real mice really long for a nutty-scented Gruyère? Not exactly.
First of all, not all mice are the same. Mice are a diverse group, forming several different genera including apodemosthe field mice and puree, or standard mice. Each mouse species is used to its own habitat, like the desert pygmy mouse (opens in new tab) (Mus indutus) of southern Africa or the steppe mouse (opens in new tab) (Mus spicilegus) of Eastern Europe. But the mouse that people are most familiar with is the house mouse (Mus musculus).
Probably the house mouse developed in Central and South Asia, said Megan Phifer Rixey (opens in new tab), an evolutionary biologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the species. But with the help of humans, these rodents have spread around the world — and when it comes to food, they’re not particularly picky.
Related: Do elephants really never forget?
A house mouse will eat just about anything that’s around, Phifer-Rixey said. That could be grains, bugs, trash — and yes, cheese, if available. But cheese is by no means a mouse’s favorite food, she said.
Instead, house mice really seem to love peanut butter. “You have a good sense of smell, and it has a pretty strong odor,” Phifer-Rixey said. Plus, peanut butter has a lot protein and fat, which mice find attractive, she added.
Peanut butter is also recommended as a mouse bait by many exterminators and pest control specialists. Phifer-Rixey said she’s heard of some people trying to catch house mice by mixing bacon bits into the peanut butter, and for her research she’ll add some oats to keep the traps from getting too sticky.
Where did this cheesy story come from?
So if mice are ambivalent about cheese, where did the idea of cheese-loving mice come from? Unfortunately, this question does not seem to have a definitive answer.
A seemingly unproven one theory It’s been circulating online that people used to store their cheese on open shelves, as opposed to other foods that are kept in jars or hanging from the ceiling. Since cheese was readily available to mice, people may have seen mice eat their cheese, leading to the modern trope – so the story goes.
The origin of the idea can go back hundreds or thousands of years. Some Internet investigator (opens in new tab) found that the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who lived in the first century AD, took it for granted that mice love cheese.
“‘Mouse’ is a syllable,” says the philosopher wrote (opens in new tab) in a letter to his friend Lucilius, according to a translation of his works by Richard Mott Gummere, a former Latin professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. “Now a mouse eats its cheese; so a syllable eats cheese.”
So it’s possible that this mouse-and-cheese tale has existed for as long as mice and humans (and cheese) have coexisted, from the halls of ancient Rome to the rodent-inspired children’s arcades of modern-day America’s suburbs.