Evolution of vocalization in singing mice

This project is ongoing.

The Phelps lab is broadly interested in animal social behavior, its neural, genetic and molecular mechanisms, and how those mechanisms evolve. Using “exotic” rodent models, we focus on the nature and consequences of within- and between-species variation in behavior. One of our model species is the singing mouse (genus Scotinomys) of Costa Rica. These mice are named for their elaborate and audible vocalizations. While ultrasonic vocalization is common across rodents, “songs” – these elaborate vocalizations spanning ultrasonic and audible frequencies – are uniquely derived in singing mice. Singing mice are sister to pygmy mice of the genus Baiomys, whose vocalizations are shorter, softer, and entirely ultrasonic. Phylogenetic analysis indicates that this is the basal state for vocalization. Northern pygmy mice, Baiomys taylori, are common in Texas, facilitating comparative study. This comparative analysis will help us elucidate the evolutionary origins of song in the singing mice.

One need is for students to help us with fieldwork on these species. (This portion is led by Tracy Burkhard, ttburk@gmail.com.) Student volunteers will gain experience in a variety of areas, including rodent trapping, handling, and husbandry; two-choice behavior tests; and acoustic playback and recording methods. Exceptional volunteers may be offered the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica in Summer 2015. We also have openings on a second, lab-based project working on decision-making about song and body condition in the singing mice (Erin Giglio, eringiglio@gmail.com). This project includes both behavioral and neuroanatomical work in the lab.


We are looking for students who have successfully completed courses with lab components in biology or chemistry. Ideal applicants are self-motivated, demonstrate a willingness to learn new skills, and can work both independently and cooperatively. Students who have participated in the Freshman Research Initiative are particularly encouraged to apply.

For field studies, we are also looking for students who are comfortable in and enjoy the outdoors, including work in hot and often buggy environments is required.

Project Timeline

This is an ongoing project. We are looking for students with 2 or more years to spend working in the lab. We will accept applications until positions are filled.


Initial tasks will be focused on helping with existing projects and basic lab maintenance. As students become more skilled and have demonstrated commitment and conscientiousness, independent projects will be available in later semesters. In order to have a meaningful experience, we require that students have 10-20hrs per week to spend on the project and are able to attend lab meetings on Friday afternoons (3-5pm). Students who are interested in helping with weekend fieldwork are especially needed.


The Office of Undergraduate Research recommends that you attend an info session or advising before contacting faculty members or project contacts about research opportunities. We'll cover the steps to get involved, tips for contacting faculty, funding possibilities, and options for course credit. Once you have attended an Office of Undergraduate Research info session or spoken to an advisor, you can use the "Who to contact" details for this project to get in touch with the project leader and express your interest in getting involved.

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