What I Learned from Mouse Vocalizations

Mouse Vocalizations and the Brain.

Sounds like a date night, doesn’t it? Last Wednesday Doug and I went to a lecture at Janelia Farm, which is a research institute funded by Howard Hughes money. Picture a lot of smart people doing laboratory research about various brain-related topics. Every couple of months someone gives a lecture for the general public. The place itself is gorgeous, set into a hillside with glassed windows banked like terraces, and beautiful sculptures here and there. The lecture hall is the most comfortable one I’ve ever been in, with individual swivel chairs. Each and every time I enter the place I think, Why can’t church be like this? (I know the answer. See “money.”)

The lecture is always interesting and, honestly, even if it weren’t, I’d go for the hors d’oeuvres. This time it was a huge assortment of miniature roasted vegetables: baby beets, eggplant, zucchini, carrots, peppers, turnips. Pieces of bread with little squares of liver pate. Plus an assortment of desserts in little cups with miniature plastic spoons, garnished with swirls of chocolate or sugared lemon rind. You gotta love eating bite-sized things, right?

Anyway, about the mouse vocalizations. So, mice can’t hear our voices, they’re too low, and we can’t hear mouse voices, they’re too high. This makes it tough to decode their “language” so the scientists devise experiments to track repetitive sounds and correlate them to various behaviors. The fun stuff, of course, is aggression and courtship. We saw some great footage of male mice fighting over a female. Real knight-in-shining-armor behavior, including the female mouse literally choosing the winner by squirming through a little hole to get to him.

In describing this scene, the scientist talked about similar behavior among songbirds. She said that two male birds will sing their hearts out for a female, and she’ll listen and pick the male with the strongest song. Genetic selection for the strength of the species and all that. (No mention at all about hairstyle, vehicle choice, or the all-important sense of humor.)

Today I was in my study and glanced out the window as a pair of orioles arrived on a maple branch. I watched them closely because orioles are not something I see every day. The male, more orange-y, was singing and the female, more yellow, was not. Aha, I thought. On cue, there was a flurry as another male oriole arrived. He, also, was singing. The female just sat there, cocking her head back and forth. Then the late-arriving male flew closer to the female, and the first male attacked him. Before they could settle anything, the female flew away, and the two males followed.

If I hadn’t attended that lecture this whole interaction would have been: some birds on a branch. End.

How cool to be given the eyes to see what’s in front of me. How many times have I seen that very drama unfold, only I didn’t have the eyes to see? How many other dramas am I still blind to?


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