Can Mice Talk?

By ELIN HAWKINSON

Published January 2018

Can mice talk? Or is it just gossip? A fascinating study overseen by Department of Psychology Associate Professor Micheal Dent, PhD, explores ultrasonic vocalizations in mice to form a more complete and accurate picture of acoustic communication, a process vital for survival.

Confirming whether mice can discriminate between different “songs” or “calls” is one key to determining if and how they may be communicating. Dent’s work revealed that dissimilar calls were easier for the mice to distinguish, and—like humans who might mishear tent as tend in a conversation—mice became confused when the calls were near-identical. These findings provide solid evidence that there is a communication-based purpose to the sounds.

“Figuring out that they could tell the difference between vocalizations was huge. It opens up the possibility that the calls could be like our words,” Dent says. “No one had done anything like that before.”

Mouse

Design: Pierce Strudler

Another recent discovery revolved around housing. Normally, laboratory mice are housed individually, but an experiment conducted by one of Dent’s PhD students, Laurel Screven, suggests mice housed socially can discriminate between calls at a higher rate, and that it takes the socialized mice less time to complete a given task.

Dent’s research includes a unique focus on trained behavior, a context not widely pursued in mice. “Nobody else is asking attending mice how well they distinguish between their calls and other complex signals,” Dent explains. “We’re about the only lab in the world doing that.” 

Micheal Dent

Micheal Dent
(Photo: Doug Levere)

To learn more about Micheal Dent's work, visit the Dent Laboratory.

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