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Just like Birds, Male Mice Woo the Ladies With Song

Apr 01, 2015 11:56 PM EDT
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You might not hear it, but mice are actually practiced singers. In fact, male mice might actually rely opn their voices to grab a girls attention, not unlike many songbirds.

That's at least according to a study recently published in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, which details how the 'ultrasonic vocalizations' (USVs) of mice are far more complex and situational than experts ever imagines.

Interestingly, scientists have known for decades that mice emit USVs, which happen to be too high-pitched for the human ear to pick up. They are apparently signing nearly all the time - a revelation which gives the term "quiet as a mouse" an entirely new meaning.

However, researchers are still struggling to determine how and what these mice songs may mean - not unlike how some primates songs and chimpanzee chatter are being slowly translated through behavioral analyses.

That's where this new research has made some headway, after Duke University's Jonathan Chabout exposed adult male mice to different social contexts, and, in collaboration with David Dunson and Abhra Sarkar, developed a new computational approach for analyzing mouse songs.

Now here's where things get weird. The team found that male mice sing complex and boisterous songs when they smell a female's urine but don't see her. This could be an attempt to draw her out, so he can determine if she will make a suitable mate. However, it turns out that mice are nervous when they have an audience. Songs sung when a female actually shows are longer but far quieter and simpler.

"We think this has something to do with the complex song being like a calling song, and then when he sees the female, he switches to a simpler song in order to save energy to chase and try to court her at the same time," study co-author and Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, explained in a statement.

"It was surprising to me how much change occurs to these songs in different social contexts, when the songs are thought to be innate," he added. "It is clear that the mouse's ability to vocalize is a lot more limited than a songbird's or human's, and yet it's remarkable that we can find these differences in song complexity."

What's interesting is that when the researchers played the simple and complex songs from speakers, it appeared that the females like hearing the complex song up-close-and-personal far more - a result that implies that the different songs likely hold different social significance.

Still, they are a long way from understanding mouse song enough to elicit different responses depending on the tune. Still, you never know; maybe in the future a scientists decoding USVs will become a modern Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading rodents away with a speaker under his arm.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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