The Atlantic

Can Singing Mice Reveal the Roots of Human Speech?

Long considered an oddity, mouse songs are now being used by researchers to explore the basics of vocal communication.
Source: Natacha Pisarenko / AP

One chilly day in February 1877, a British cotton baron named Joseph Sidebotham heard what he thought was a canary warbling near his hotel window. He was vacationing with his family in France, and soon realized the tune wasn’t coming from outside. “The singing was in our salon,” he wrote of the incident in Nature. “The songster was a mouse.”

The family fed the creature bits of biscuit, and it quickly became comfortable enough to climb onto the warm hearth at night and regale them with songs. It would sing for hours.

Clearly, Sidebotham concluded, this was no ordinary mouse.

More than a century later, however, scientists discovered he was wrong. It turns out that all mice chitter away to each other. Their language is usually just too high-pitched for human ears to detect.

Today, mouse songs are no mere curiosity. Researchers are able to engineer mice to express

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