For decades it was thought that only humans and some birds were capable of learning songs – but a new study claims that mice are also capable of memorising fresh serenades.
Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina set up a mouse-style X Factor contest and found that when two male mice were placed in the same cage with a female, the males’ pitch began to converge after seven to eight weeks.
In other words, they were learning new ultrasonic vocalisations to woo the female.
“We are claiming that mice have limited versions of the brain and behaviour traits for vocal learning that are found in humans for learning speech and in birds for learning song,” said Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.
The discovery contradicts scientists’ 60-year-old assumption that mice do not have vocal learning traits at all.
“If we’re not wrong, these findings will be a big boost to scientists studying diseases like autism and anxiety disorders,” said Jarvis, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “The researchers who use mouse models of the vocal communication effects of these diseases will finally know the brain system that controls the mice’s vocalisations.”
“This is a very important study with great findings,” said Kurt Hammerschmidt, an expert in vocal communication at the German Primate Center who was not involved in the study.
The results of the study were published in PLOS ONE and are further described in a review article in Brain and Language.