The Mysterious Singing Mice

The Mysterious Singing Mice

Deer mice discovered to call to each other melodically

Animal sounds take on a variety of forms, but there are only a few that we humans consider melodic. We learned to make music from the birds, of course; the way we structure melody in music theory is ultimately rooted in birdsong. Whales, too, we consider singers. But only recently have mice joined the ranks of musical beasts.

Scientists first captured a singing mouse in 1925. Apparently it produced a tune akin to those heard from birds. The confounded scientists, who had never heard a mouse sing, tried to breed the creature with a non-singing mouse. Its offspring lacked the same musical talent as their father, although they were said to “chitter.” 

Researchers have found more of these mice in the wilds of California. Field recordings show that their songs rise and fall in melody, like the tunes produced by whales but at a much higher pitch. Little is yet known about the purpose of these songs, or why they differ from the chirps and squeaks we usually associate with mice.

And maybe there’s not much of a difference. After all, we as human observers place special importance on natural sounds that mimic other noises. Because we’re used to melody coming from birds, it seems strange that a certain type of mouse would “sing.” But is it really that strange?

The natural world is full of animals communicating with each other in ways that are strange to us. Some messages, like threats and seductions, we can interpret easily on a cause-and-effect basis. But when it comes to complicated forms of language, it’s easy to get lost. We don’t always know how animal language operates over time. Humans are capable of sending messages to each other that have little to do with the situation at hand. We can make plans for the future, agree to meet up at a certain time, or give orders to be carried out later. An outside observer wouldn’t be able to judge the purpose of these messages based on the events that directly follow them. If different mammals are capable of conceiving of time the way we do, in larger sections, maybe they can also make plans by sending messages we can’t decipher.

Or maybe the mousesongs are a form of broadcast, a series of messages meant for a wider audience than another individual mouse. If they are loud enough to be recorded at a field site, then they are probably loud enough to be heard and interpreted by any passing animals. What we think of as part of the ambient noise of wildlife could have an actual, specific purpose.

The languages of animals seem to be incredibly difficult for us to decipher. But figuring out how nature understands itself could be vital to our role as protector of the planet. And even if we lend more interpretation to the music of animals than the animals themselves, humans enjoy viewing nature as a mirror. Our own impulse to create music is in many ways mysterious in itself. It’s good to know we’re not the only ones singing out there. 

(via Smithsonian)