Why Mice Sing: Sex, and to Protect Habitat


So some mice can learn how to sing, and it serves at least two purposes, attracting a lover and dispatching a competitor. And the story doesn't end there. Pasch said many rodents, including rats and even pet hamsters, produce complex vocalizations.

When we think of singing animals, we usually think of birds. Many species, especially among the 4,600 species of songbirds, produce melodies that can be stunning in their beauty. But, perhaps surprisingly, some of the best singers in the animal world are rarely heard, because they are underwater.

Whether you want to call it music or just noise, vocalizations are immensely important to creatures of the deep. Sound is much more useful than sight in many cases, because light gets absorbed so quickly. The same is true for odors, so smell is not much help.

But sound travels four times faster in water than it does in the atmosphere, and it works as well in the darkness as it does in daylight.

Few sounds, either above or below the water, are a match for the legendary songs of the humpback whale. These songs are haunting and unforgettable -- cries, howls, and moans -- and they play a vital role in the life of the humpback.

Until fairly recently it was thought that the male humpback sings only to attract a mate, but scientists have found that is far from the truth.

In the waters off Alaska, where I live, we have watched the drama of bubble feeding by humpbacks many times, and it's a scene that can never grow old. Underwater microphones pick up a wide variety of sounds as the whales go through carefully orchestrated maneuvers to trap schools of small fish, usually herring.

Some members of the pod produce curtains of bubbles that surround the fish as the bubbles move toward the surface. The fish, apparently unaware that they could simply swim through the bubbles to freedom, remain paralyzed as the whales begin surging from the bottom of the trap to the surface, their huge mouths open, filling with fish as they rise to the top.

That kind of maneuver requires someone in command to issue orders, telling each whale in the drama exactly what to do. You can't understand what they are saying, but you can hear the music with the right equipment, and it is awesome.

The whales will move on later to warmer waters where they will spend the winter, and mate, as the males sing their hearts out in pursuit of a female. Then they will head north again and the males will continue to sing with young pups swimming alongside mom, so close, indeed, that they will frequently touch.

It's no less than a symphony.

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