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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Note on Emerging Science – Singing Mice

Air Date: Week of April 6, 2012

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A male and female house mouse greet each other by sniffing. Male mice sing complex ultrasonic courtship songs to attract females. (Photo: Kerstin Thonhauser)

It’s springtime and the birds – make that the mice – are singing. As Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports, researchers have found that male house mice sing complex ultrasonic songs when courting females.

Transcript

[MOUSE SONG]

BATES: Listen. It sounds like a twittering bird. But it’s actually a mouse.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

BATES: Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna analyzed the sounds made by male house mice. They found that the males sing complex ultrasonic songs to send messages to females.

The scientists recorded and lowered the pitch of the songs to make them audible to human ears. They then analyzed parameters like duration and frequency. They discovered male house mice courtship songs contain “signatures” that set the singer apart from other males. The songs of siblings were more similar than the songs of unrelated males, so a female mouse can tell if an interested male is related to her, which could help avoid inbreeding.

House mice calls are very different from those of inbred laboratory mice. Male house mice sing songs with more syllables and in higher frequency ranges than their laboratory cousins. This suggests a genetic component to mouse song, just as there is in bird song.

Mouse song might share other characteristics of bird song. In some bird species, the males with the most complex songs attract the most mates. Next, researchers want to test female mice to see what musical flourishes they prefer.
Mice appeared to be simple, squeaky animals, until scientists figured out how to listen to them. It turns out, mice live in a world alive with the sound of music. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

 

Links

Sound samples from Holy and Guo (2005), PLoS Biology

Physiology and Behavior journal abstract

Journal of Ethology abstract

 

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