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UD study says female mice sing back when courted by males

Maggie Bartlett, NHGRI



Since the 1950s, scientists have known that male mice sing to females when they’re courting them. But now, they know that the females sing back.

To hear these courtship songs, scientists have to use ultrasonic microphones. That’s because mice talk at a frequency that’s well above the range of human hearing. University of Delaware professor Josh Neunuebel says it’s hard to connect a sound to a specific mouse, especially if the animal's cage is made of material, like hard plastic, that echoes.

“When the sound bounces off the walls, or reflect, it makes it incredibly difficult to figure out where the sound is coming from," said Neunuebel.

Knowing this, Neunuebel and his colleagues built a chamber out of nylon mesh and foam to absorb the sound, then placed four ultrasonic microphones along the periphery. This let them discover that some sounds in the cage were coming from female mice. Researchers also found that female mice who were interested in their gentleman callers not only sang back, but also slowed down their pace, so the males could catch up. Neunuebel is still trying to understand how the mice communicate, but in this context, he has an idea.

“We think it’s saying, ‘Hey! I’m interested in you. Catch me if you can,'" said Neunuebel.

Conversely, the female mice who didn’t appear interested kept going at a normal pace. Neunuebel says the research could have implications for human communication -- and disorders like autism that can affect it.

“We’re actually using some different mouse models of autism to study vocal communication in these mouse models. And we want to see if there are communication deficits," said Neunuebel.

His team's findings were published in the life sciences journal eLife.

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