Is that squeaking sound that mice make a song they learn? A University of Washington neurobiologist says no.

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Could singing mice knock songbirds off their perch when it comes to neurobiology research?

Birds are a great model for human learning, but their brains lack the higher structures common to mammals. So neuroscientists were excited in 2005 when a team in St. Louis reported that the ultrasonic squeaks emitted by male mice when they encounter females sound a lot like songs.

Most mammals are born knowing how to howl or growl or chatter. Only a handful, such as whales and dolphins, learn communication skills — and they’re not easy animals to study. Mice are. “If mice learn their vocalizations, then it could be a big advance for understanding how humans do it,” said David Perkel, a University of Washington neurobiologist.

But a new study by Perkel and his collaborators puts the lie to the mouse’s musical cred.

Deaf birds produce lousy songs, proof that they learn from others and by listening to their own practice runs. Perkel and his colleagues raised deaf mice — and found they vocalize just as well as those with perfect hearing.

“It seems to be innate, not learned,” he said.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491

or sdoughton@seattletimes.com