The Secret Mating Songs Sung By Mice

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, January 23, 2016
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“The softer you sing, the louder you’re heard.” —Donovan

In A Nutshell

A mysterious singing mouse discovered in Detroit in 1925 was all but forgotten until researchers decided to record field mice and play those recordings back. Sure enough, just out of the range of our hearing was an incredibly complex, bird-like series of chirps and whistles, a mouse song that’s been found to attract mates. There’s a fair amount of variation between mouse songs, and it all seems to depend on their social situation.

The Whole Bushel

When you think of the great singers of the animal kingdom, birds are at the top of the list. Besides the neighbor’s dog at 3:00 AM, there are few others that spring to mind as great composers of music. But Duke University researchers have evidence that mice might have a place on the list, too.

They found that male mice sing a complicated, bird-like tune when they smell a female mouse nearby. It’s too high-pitched for human ears to hear without some help from technological enhancements, but when we do get a listen, it sounds incredibly like the chirps and whistles of any bird perched outside your window.

The sounds were exactly like that at their most basic level, made up of individual syllables that the mice put together to make their own tunes.

The mice were most vocal when they first caught the scent of the nearby girls, using the song to woo their prospective mates closer. Once they were within range, the songs tapered off. It’s believed this is done to conserve energy for the next step in the wooing game.

Well, girls always love the lead singer, but what about the sensitive guy? The mouse songs are only a part of the impressively complicated attempts made by male mice to secure themselves some love.

Male mouse tears also drive the ladies wild. The tears are produced as a natural part of the grooming process to keep their eyes clear. The tears get spread to their faces, then their fur, then their nests. The females that come into contact with the tears are more likely to be agreeable mates.

When it comes to their serenades, the individual parts of the song seem to be put together based on different situations. What’s not clear is if there’s a whole repertoire of innate mouse lyrics or if they’re just sort of jamming along to whatever’s going on around them.

The studies hint at a complex social life in mice that we’re only beginning to understand, which makes us wonder what other animals have secret communications that we haven’t picked up on yet.

And why were we looking at the songs and tears of mice in the first place?

In 1925, a man named J.L. Clark was living in Detroit when he found a very odd singing mouse. He caught it and took it to the University of Detroit, where researchers confirmed that yes, it could sing. They tried breeding it with some of their own mice to see if it was inherited. The babies seemed to only chirp a bit louder than most, and the whole thing was forgotten.

It was quite a while until a University of North Carolina biologist took another look at the single article that had been written about the weird singing mouse. An expert in animal sounds, Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell made some recordings of wild mice tagged as part of another study. It was only when she slowed down the recording that she first heard the mouse song.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: Mice sing just like birds, but we can’t hear them
National Geographic: Mouse Tears Are Aphrodisiacs
Smithsonian: The Mystery of the Singing Mice