Singing mice surprise scientists

Animal singing stars, clockwise from left: beluga whale, Pacific frog, blackbird, mouse.

Scientists now accept that mice, like many animals, can communicate by singing. But now a study has found that they can even teach one another new tunes.

For many humans, the high-pitched chirruping of a house mouse is a sound to provoke horror: it signals the presence of a ravenous and resourceful pest. But to the ears of other mice, at least some of these squeaks are literally music.

Singing contests are one of the main ways that male mice compete for mates. That much has been known for years. Only recently, however, have scientists discovered quite how sophisticated and diverse these songs are; now, a study has shown that mice can even teach one another new tunes.

That places them among a tiny group of elite animal singers. The finest songbirds can sing endlessly without a single repetition, songs more musically complex than humans could handle. It would take thirty people singing cooperatively, for instance, to mimic the speed and range of a blackbird’s call. Particularly musical migrating birds pick up influences from species around the globe, resulting in what has been called a ‘world-music mix’.

Then there is whalesong. Beluga whales are so celebrated for their calls that they have become known as the ‘canaries of the sea’. But others are impressive in different ways: the songs of humpback whales have elements that are similar to grammar, while some species of dolphins have developed many separate dialects.

Why do these animals sing? Partly to court a mate, mark territory or send warnings. But scientists increasingly believe that certain species often make music purely for pleasure.

In another sign that animals may be capable of joy, it has also emerged that many animals laugh. Tickle a chimpanzee and it will descend into a hysterical giggling fit. Rats are also ticklish, and often laugh together during play – though their piercing squeals are hardly recognisable as laughter. This is not to say that animals appreciate puns or satire – but their behaviour may be comparable to that of a gurgling baby.

Dancing, too, is a surprisingly common phenomenon. And though this is usually part of a mating ritual, some animals appear to dance simply for joy. Among them: the ferret.

A musical menagerie

If animals are capable of such expressive acts, then perhaps their experience of the world is not so distant from our own. When we sing, laugh or dance, we are often expressing deep emotions. Who is to say that the joy of a singing mouse is any less profound?

But many question the logic of these comparisons between animal and human behaviour. When we ‘see’ an animal singing or laughing, they say, we are really just projecting our own human experiences onto altogether dumber forms of life. Our keenness to relate to animals is not down to their sophistication, but our own depth of intelligence and feeling.

You Decide

  1. Do you think animals are capable of experiencing complex emotion? Why / why not?
  2. If an animal can sing, should that change anything about the way we treat it?

Activities

  1. Choose one species of animal and research how it communicates.
  2. Use samples of animal song to create your own piece of music.

Some People Say...

“Any animal that can sing and laugh must surely have a soul.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Rats and mice are disgusting.
That’s a pretty common view. Mice and rats have been hated for millennia as pests and spreaders of disease. Rats on ships were a terror that could reduce food stocks to the point at which the crew would starve, and when they disembarked they would often bring with them terrible diseases: the bubonic plague was spread from China all the way to Britain by rats.
So who cares if they can sing? They’re still the enemy.
Most people show little patience or mercy when they find mice in their home, and many use deadly traps or poison to get rid of the pests. But if mice serenade each other, enjoying the beauty of song just as humans do, maybe we should hesitate before thoughtlessly killing them.

Word Watch

Migrating birds
Some species of bird undertake yearly migrations in search of better food, habitats or weather. The distances covered by birds can be vast: the sooty shearwater migrates every year from New Zealand to the North Pacific and back.
Dialects
In the human world, a dialect is a sub-branch of a particular language. Speakers from different dialects of the same language can usually understand one another, but also have a significant number of words, phrases and elements of grammar that are totally distinct.
Send warnings
Many animals have alarm calls that alert fellow members of their species to a nearby danger such as a predator. But particularly sophisticated creatures have many different calls to distinguish one threat from another. For instance, if the vervet monkey hears the ‘leopard’ warning, it will quickly climb a tree; if it hears the ‘eagle’ warning, it will dash for cover on the ground.

Subjects

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