Singing science

I’m excited by the theme for qarrtsiluni this month, “science as poetry.” This was the choice of the brand-new editors, Alison Kent and Maria Benet; I was pleased to be able to step aside and leave the blog in such capable hands. (Though I couldn’t resist a final, spur-of-the-moment post for the October theme on the death of Rosa Parks.)

Potential contributors having a hard time thinking of a topic need look no farther than the recent news that laboratory mice can sing (click on the link to hear recordings of the songs).

Scientists have known for decades that female lab mice or their pheromones cause male lab mice to make ultrasonic vocalizations. But a new paper from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis establishes for the first time that the utterances of the male mice are songs.

This finding, to be published Nov. 1 online by the journal Public Library of Science Biology, adds mice to the roster of creatures that croon in the presence of the opposite sex, including songbirds, whales and some insects.

“In the literature, there’s a hierarchy of different definitions for what qualifies as a song, but there are usually two main properties,” says lead author Timothy E. Holy, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy. “One is that there should be some syllabic diversity–recognizably distinct categories of sound, instead of just one sound repeated over and over. And there should be some temporal regularity–motifs and themes that recur from time to time, like the melodic hook in a catchy tune.”

The new study shows that mouse song has both qualities, although Holy notes that the ability of lab mice to craft motifs and themes isn’t quite on a par with that of master songsmiths like birds.

“Perhaps the best analogy for mouse song would be the song of juvenile birds, who put forth what you might call proto-motifs and themes,” he explains. “It’s not yet clear whether singing conveys an advantage to male mice during courtship, as it appears to do in birds.” …

“Studying this kind of response in mice lets us model higher-level tasks such as pattern recognition and learning in a brain where the neuroanatomy is much simpler than it is in humans,” he explains. “The idea is to help us lay a foundation on which we can eventually construct a very concrete understanding of how these tasks are accomplished in the human brain.”

Will science someday be able to explain what poets and musicians cannot: the source of inspiration? I’m not holding my breath.

At any rate, I already have a different idea in mind for this theme, so I offer the above story al que quiere. See the qarrtsiluni sidebar for the slightly expanded submission guidelines.

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