When I first saw “singing mice” on the Science cover lineup, I thought it was a prank—one of my colleagues tweaking me, perhaps imagining images of a tiny mouse barbershop quartet, or a spear-carrying mouse opera diva. But mouse singing—a kind of chirpy vocalizing that rises in pitch—is real, Michael Long, lead author of the paper in this issue of Science, assured me. Singing mice engage in rapid vocal exchanges known as “turn-taking” that have surprising similarities to human conversation and may provide insight into communication disorders from strokes or autism.
The singing mice are a different species than standard laboratory mice, which do not engage in these elaborate vocal exchanges, Michael said. His collaborator, Steven Phelps from the University of Texas at Austin, obtains the singing mice from cloud forests in Costa Rica. In the wild, each singing mouse has a home range about half the size of a football field. “They have very different voices,” Michael said, “and engage in these kind of West Side Story duets with each other, perhaps saying, ‘This is my property!’ We’re trying to understand what these vocal exchanges really mean.”
The Costa Rica mice “are divas,” Michael said. “They want live mealworms and larger cages than most mice. They want exercise equipment, or they get overweight.” We were about to learn just how much of a diva a singing mouse could be.
The cover photo Michael submitted with his paper showed the singing behavior, but offered room for improvement. A lower camera angle could add drama, making the mouse more impressive. More light on the face could emphasize the singing behavior. A longer lens could isolate the mouse, making a stronger cover image.
I brought in a photographer based near Michael’s New York laboratory, someone who is highly skilled with lighting and dramatic portraiture. The three of us had a lengthy phone conversation and reviewed pictures of the lab setup. The mice usually sang when standing atop a small rock platform in their glass enclosure. Michael had recorded mouse songs that could trigger a mouse to sing back in response. We talked through lighting and background options, finally scheduling a day for the shoot.
The photo session started promisingly enough. On hearing the recorded mouse songs chirping, the mouse in the enclosure mounted the beautifully lit rock “stage.” One even assumed a singing pose, briefly rising up on hind legs. But no mouse sang. As the hours dragged by, the mice withdrew to a corner of the enclosure. The photographer and Michael became increasingly concerned. Finally, after 6 hours, without a single mouse singing, we ended the session.
Later, Michael and I followed up on what had gone wrong. The mice froze, he said, probably frightened by the number of people and the strobes. “I’ve been studying their behavior for years now,” Michael said ruefully, “and didn’t remember that the number one thing is to respect the wishes of the mice. They’re the divas! They sing when they sing!”
We don’t often do photography reshoots at Science. It’s expensive, and weekly deadline pressures seldom allow time on the rare occasions a shoot doesn’t work. We might, I suggested to Michael, have to look at other subjects for the cover.
But Michael was determined he could get the mice to sing on cue. “We wanted this shot!” he recalled. He suggested giving Christopher Auger-Dominguez, the photographer who had made the initial picture, another try.
Michael and his team made other changes. Michael replaced the single large enclosure with four smaller ones, each holding an identical rock stage. He placed a strong “singer” mouse in each. That way, different mice could be quickly put into place for photography. Christopher set up two identical low-powered lighting setups to move back and forth between two of the enclosures at a time. Black velvet surrounded the enclosures, isolating the mice from distractions. A web camera unobtrusively monitored their movements, revealing when a mouse was preparing to sing.
Photographing in near dark conditions was challenging. The mice often chose different positions on the “stage” for their brief performances, requiring Chris to quickly adjust his composition. “I had to be dead on in focus as the animals are so small,” Chris said.
In the end, the work paid off, with a long-tooth mouse delivering an impressive vocal solo to an unseen audience. “What I’m in love with about this picture,” Michael said, “is that it doesn’t really show an animal. It shows a behavior. This captures that territorial call in full operatic glory.”
Bill Douthitt is the Photography Managing Editor at Science.