Do mice have the X factor?

I was woken up this morning to the radio announcing breaking news that scientists have discovered that male mice can sing in harmony to ‘woo’ female mice. I was curious as to what the research involved and why it had hit the media so much. Was the study worth the media coverage? Do mice have the X factor?

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The study was published in PLOS ONE, an open access journal, which some scientists dispute as being a home for poor quality science. The requirements of publishing in PLOS ONE are unlike most journals, which require the paper to be considered for its importance as well as its technical basis. I don’t like to judge other people’s work I am unfamiliar with but it certainly got alarm bells ringing in my head and I read the rest of the paper with an air of caution.

The paper has very bold claims, with statements suggesting that mice have similar neuroanatomical features to vocal learning animals, which allows them to display vocal learning behaviour. Vocal learning behaviour was previously thought to be restricted to some birds, whales dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants.

The hypothesis… neural mechanisms for song production in mice are similar to those found in a songbird, which allows the animal to show vocal learning behaviour. 

The experiment … male mice were housed together and their vocal reaction was recorded in response to urine from female mice placed in their bedding. Over a period of 8 weeks the mice developed a harmonised song to attract the females. They also looked at what parts of the brain are activated during this process and compared them to known pathways activated in animals displaying vocal learning.

The science behind the news… it is understood that there exists a complex brain network overseeing the operation of vocal learning. This is composed of a specialised forebrain circuit linked to a feedback system in the brain using the auditory system to develop and maintain vocalisations. T 

The conclusion.. mice display features associated with vocal learning but not at the complex level found in songbirds.

So, was this study a deserving candidate for all the media publicity? It certainly is an interesting concept and if the theory holds it could open the door to showing more mammals displaying vocal learning. However, I find it quite frustrating that many studies that show significant impact on disease pass by without any media publication. We seem to be living in an era dominated by X factor, this is certainly a ‘sexy’ piece of research which has played into the hands of the media.  But do mice have the X factor? Yes, they probably do.

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