Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Was Douglas Adams right about the mice?

Cartoon mice might have been singing to us for a few decades.

But a recent finding suggests that real mice sing to each other too and that they choose mates on the basis of their songs.

Male house mice pro­duce me­lo­di­ous songs to at­tract mates, not un­like many birds, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

The dit­ties are too high-pitched for hu­man hear­ing, but sci­en­tists at Vi­en­na's Un­ivers­ity of Vet­er­i­nary Med­i­cine an­a­lyzed them and found they con­vey in­forma­t­ion about ident­ity and kin­ship. The find­ings are pub­lished in the jour­nal Phys­i­ol­o­gy and Be­hav­ior and in the Jour­nal of Ethol­o­gy.  [Read on]

Admittedly that particular link is to a sensational online science article designed to appeal to the public, but there is much more information to be found in a more technical format, in other places.  In fact mouse song has been studied at some length in many places around the world.

One such publication is Development of Social Vocalizations in Mice.  In this paper it suggests that adult mice can vocalise 11 different syllables, and that their pups can manage nearly all of them while only a few days old.  The introduction to the paper begins

Mice are highly vocal animals, with both males and females vocalizing in same-sex and cross-sex social encounters. Mouse pups are also highly vocal, producing isolation vocalizations when they are cold or removed from the nest, despite the fact that they cannot hear until postnatal day 10. Adult mice can discriminate between vocalizations of pups and adults. For example, virgin female mice are attracted to playbacks of male song, but not pup vocalizations. In contrast, playback of pup vocalizations to mothers, but not to pup-naïve virgins, elicits search and retrieval behavior. These behavioral differences have a correlate in the auditory cortex, where physiological responses to pup syllables differ for maternal and virgin animals. The complexity of acoustic communication behaviors and the presence of neural correlates that underlie some of these behaviors provide a strong rationale to explore the details of this vocal communication system and how it changes developmentally.

So - mice can communicate with each other through their songs.  Indeed, their songs would probably sound more complex than the beautiful bird songs that we hear in everyday life if only our ears were able to pick up such high frequency sounds.

The revelation that mouse songs are clearly forms of communication is hardly enough to support the idea that Douglas Adams' claim in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe is true.  However, it is not quite as far-fetched as we all thought.  Maybe the mice really are the 3D manifestations of multi-dimensional intelligent beings after all.

Small note: No - I'm not really being serious!

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