The Mystery of the Singing Mice

A scientist has discovered that high-pitched sounds made by the small rodents could actually be melodious songs

Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell deciphers the ultrasonic chatter, shown here plotted on a spectrograph, of a deer mouse. (Lynda Richardson)
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Her discovery reminds us that each species perceives the world in a unique way, with a finely tuned set of senses, and so finds itself in a slightly different world. Bacteria call to each other with chemicals. Mosquitoes detect the carbon dioxide we exhale. Ants see polarized light. Turtles navigate using the earth’s magnetic field. Birds see ultraviolet markings on flowers, signs invisible to us. Snakes home in on the heat in a cougar’s footprint or a rabbit’s breath. Most of these different worlds are little understood because of the narrow reach of our own perceptions. Kalcounis-Rueppell hears music in the dark, but as a species we still fumble around.

I am still waiting to learn what we recorded when I visited Kalcounis-Rueppell’s North Carolina field site. Analyzing the field recordings is a slow process. That night we captured sounds near just a few mice, but the recordings require so much computer memory that they must be parsed into many separate files, 1,872 in total, which still need to be processed one by one. Maybe what we recorded was just noise, but maybe it was beautiful.

Rob Dunn’s next book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, will be published in July.


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