Scientists uncovering origins of singing mice

August 12th, 2012 - 5:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 12 (IANS) Singing mice have tawny brown fur instead of the common white albino strain; they hail from tropical cloud forests in the mountains of Costa Rica, and they use songs to communicate.

University of Texas-Austin researcher Steven Phelps is examining these unconventional rodents to gain insights into the genes that contribute to the unique singing behaviour - information that could help scientists understand and identify genes that affect language in humans.

“We can choose any number of traits to study but we try and choose traits that are not only interesting for their own sake but also have some biomedical relevance,” said Phelps. “We take advantage of the unique property of the species.”

The song of the singing mouse song is a rapid-fire string of high-pitched chirps called trills used mostly used by males in dominance displays and to attract mates, the journals Hormones and Behaviour and Animal Behaviour report.

Up to 20 chirps are squeaked out per second, sounding similar to birdsong to untrained ears. But unlike birds, the mice generally stick to a song made up of only a single note.

“They sound kind of soft to human ears, but if you slow them down by about three-fold, they are pretty dramatic,” said Phelps, according to a Texas statement.

Most rodents make vocalisations at a frequency too high for humans to hear. But other rodents typically don’t vocalise to the extent of singing mice, which use the song to communicate over large distances in the wild, said Andreas George, a graduate student working in Phelps’ lab.

Phelps is now looking deeper: examining the genetic components that influence song expression. Centre stage is a special gene called FOXP2.

“FOXP2 is famous because it is the only gene that has been implicated in human speech disorders specifically,” said Phelps.

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