University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Appearing in the Lab Lounge: Singing Mice and the Genes

Singing mice are not your average lab rats. Their fur is tawny brown instead of the common white albino strain; they hail from the tropical cloud forests in the mountains of Costa Rica; and, as their name hints, they use song to communicate.

A male singing mouse. Photo courtesy of Bret Pasch.

A male singing mouse. Photo courtesy of Bret Pasch.


Steven Phelps, an associate professor in the Section of Integrative Biology at The University of Texas at Austin, is examining these unconventional rodents to gain insights into the genes that contribute to the unique singing behavior—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 Phelp, associate professor of integrative biology in the College of Natural Sciences. “We take advantage of the unique property of the species.”

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

This story was written by Monica Kortsha, science and technology writer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

The song of the singing mouse (Scotinomys teguina) is a rapid-fire string of high-pitched chirps called trills used mostly used by males in dominance displays and to attract mates. 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.

Most rodents make vocalizations at a frequency much too high for humans to hear. But other rodents typically don’t vocalize 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.

Within the last year Phelps’s research on the behavior of the mouse has appeared in the journals Hormones and Behavior and Animal Behavior. But one of his newest research projects is looking deeper: examining the genetic components that influence song expression. Center stage is a special gene called FOXP2.

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

Read the rest of the story at the TACC website.

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