Male mice sing different songs in different contexts when courting lady mice, saving their best stuff for females they haven't even met yet. That's according to new research out of Duke University that documented male mice changing their tunes, literally, as social contexts changed.
And the kicker?
The fancy tunes were, perhaps no surprise, a hit with the ladies (and, hey, they could always blame the drummer if things did not go well).
The news isn't just of interest to fans of singing mice. The findings, and further study on what mice can or can't do vocally, may have implications for autism spectrum disorders in humans, say the researchers.
Mice "sing" using what are called "ultrasonic vocalizations" — high-pitched sounds that escape the human ear. To listen in on them, the researchers used special microphones to record male mice singing in two social contexts: smelling, but not seeing, a female; and interacting with her in person (as it were).
In the first case, the male was presented with female urine to sniff, but there was no lady in sight for him to woo. So what's a mouse in the mood to do? Sight unseen, the male sang to his intended a loud, complex song (defined by the scientists as a series of utterances or syllables, sometimes with a tempo).
In the second case, the female was placed in the same container with the male. Finally whisker-to-whisker with the object of his desire, the romeo mouse sang longer, simpler, quieter songs. (The video below offers a chance to compare the male's vocal chops in both cases.)
"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," said co-corresponding author Erich Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
Meanwhile, the fancy vocal gymnastics went over big with the female mice in the study. Given the choice, the majority preferred to listen to the complex songs. The researchers say this display of different reactions to different songs adds to their conclusion that there is meaning behind the various tunes.
Next, the scientists plan to study how particular genes and brain areas play into the songs the mice are singing. If they can figure out to what degree mice can learn to modify their songs, they say, it could be helpful in the study of autism spectrum disorders, where social communication and brain circuitry that affects learned behavior are impacted.
The Duke team's results were published April l in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
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