Mice Serenade Mates With Complex Tunes, Study Suggests

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 1, 2005

The stereotypically silent mouse may be one of nature's best singers, according to new research.

The male rodents sing ultrasonic songs that are inaudible to humans—but quite possibly sweet music to the opposite sex.

Scientists have known for decades that male mice vocalize when they encounter females or female urine pheromones.

"[This new] study, however, was a more careful examination of the sounds, looking for patterns that had not been previously documented—or even perhaps expected," said Timothy E. Holy, a neurobiologist at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.

Holy and colleague Zhongsheng Guo recorded and manipulated the ultrasonic vocalizations to unveil a surprising complexity. The researchers also found that individual male mice sing their own distinct songs.

"The richness and diversity of mouse song appear to approach that of many songbirds," the authors write in the current edition of the open-access journal PLoS Biology.

Nature's Chorus

Definitions of what constitutes "song" aren't always hard and fast. But the mice appear to share characteristics with birds and other natural crooners.

"The existence of several [musical] syllable types, and the fact that those syllables are arranged over time in regular and interesting ways, are sort of the two most striking characteristics of bird song and whale song," Holy said. He notes that mice sing in similar ways.

Some birdsong experts who reviewed the research were impressed by the rodents' virtuosity.

In fact mouse songs may be more complex than those of some birds, though the best bird singers produce tones that are more obviously varied than those displayed by the study mice.

"The best singers in the bird family also tend to have a more stereotypical structure to their songs," Holy said. "They learn them over a period of months and then sing the same themes and sequences of themes over and over again.

Continued on Next Page >>


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