The Evolution of Speech: Learned Vocalisations in Mice

Mice can learn vocalisations! A new article realised today on PLOS ONE by Gustavo Arriaga, Eric Zhou and Erich Jarvis, shows that mice share some of the same mechanisms used to learn vocal patterning in songbirds and humans.

Very few animals have the capacity for vocal learning. This ability allows species to modify the sequence and pitch of sounds that create songs or speech. Currently, only three groups of birds - parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds - and some mammalian species - humans, whales, dolphins, sea lions, bats and elephants - have demonstrated vocal learning. This ability is still yet to be found even in non-human primates.

This study looks at the ultrasonic vocalizations known as mouse ‘song’ and provides evidence that mice can change at least one acoustic feature of these vocalizations based on their social exposure.

Two mice were put together and over time learned to match the pitch of their songs to one another. The paper suggests this is a limited form of vocal learning.

The paper also shows evidence that the mice can control their vocal motor neurons. In the press release, Erich Jarvis states, “This is an exciting find, as the presence of direct forebrain control over the vocal neurons may be one of the most critical aspects in the human evolution of speech.”

While this vocal learning in mice seems to be much more primitive than in songbirds or humans, it may reveal some of the intermediate steps in the process by which vocalization evolved in advanced vocal learners like songbirds and humans.

Exciting stuff!



Arriaga G, Zhou EP, Jarvis ED (2012) Of Mice, Birds, and Men: The Mouse Ultrasonic Song System Has Some Features Similar to Humans and Song-Learning Birds. PLoS ONE 7(10): e46610. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046610

  • It would be interesting to see how this paper might tie in with Enard et al's (2009) paper: A Humanized Version of Foxp2 Affects Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Mice

    We could then see whether or not mice with the humanised Foxp2 variant are better at vocal learning than the non-manipulated form. (It's not really my interest in science that's driving this. Instead, I'm secretly hoping we'll finally be able to do a live-action version of Pinky and the Brain.)

  • Nessun dormouse.