If You Give a Mouse a Cooler

Who says big plastic coolers are just for keeping beer, soft drinks and food cold for tailgating?

Certainly not Dr. Erich Jarvis, who is an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University. Let me tell you about some real scientific ingenuity!

Dr. Jarvis’ lab in the Bryan Research Building on the Duke campus is lined with rows and rows of blue coolers with white lids. They are the same type of coolers you see all over the place if you walk through the tailgating area at a football game or sitting near picnic tables in parks.

Sensational Singing MiceI’ll admit, the coolers in the lab have been modified just a bit. As you can see, the open coolers sitting upright on their sides have microphones hanging from wires that are poking through holes drilled into the side of the cooler. Next to that hole, there’s a second hole drilled into the cooler. That hole has a clear plastic tube stuck in it that is used to pump oxygen into the cooler.

There are plastic trays sitting inside the cooler. Dr. Jonathan Chabout, a neurobiologist at Duke who is working with Dr. Jarvis, lifts a mouse out of a cage across the room and carries it over to the cooler. He sets the mouse in the tray and closes the cooler lid. Dr. Chabout puts a second mouse in the cooler a minute later.

So why the lab of coolers?

Dr. Jarvis is studying the vocalizations of mice. Not the 'squeak squeak' you can hear a mouse make, but the ultra high frequency singing of mice that people can’t hear. Luckily, super-sensitive microphones can pick it up.

It turns out that when the lid is closed, large plastic coolers make perfect “singing rooms” for studying mice vocalizations. The coolers are dark and relatively soundproof. The boy mouse can sing his ultra-high frequency love songs in private. The microphones can record the performance and there is plenty of air to keep the mice alive and comfortable.

Dr. Jarvis says he buys the coolers for about $10 to $20. It takes about an hour to drill the holes and set up the microphones and oxygen tubes. Compare that to the research housing for mice that lab equipment companies sell for hundreds of dollars. You can buy a lot of cheese for the money saved!

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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