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Quantifying ultrasonic mouse vocalizations using acoustic analysis in a supervised statistical machine learning framework

Examination of rodent vocalizations in experimental conditions can yield valuable insights into how disease manifests and progresses over time. It can also be used as an index of social interest, motivation, emotional development or motor function depending on the animal model under investigation. Most mouse communication is produced in ultrasonic frequencies beyond human hearing. These ultrasonic vocalizations (USV) are typically described and evaluated using expert defined classification of the spectrographic appearance or simplistic acoustic metrics resulting in nine call types. In this study, we aimed to replicate the standard expert-defined call types of communicative vocal behavior in mice by using acoustic analysis to characterize USVs and a principled supervised learning setup. We used four feature selection algorithms to select parsimonious subsets with maximum predictive accuracy, which are then presented into support vector machines (SVM) and random forests (RF). We assessed the resulting models using 10-fold cross-validation with 100 repetitions for statistical confidence and found that a parsimonious subset of 8 acoustic measures presented to RF led to 85% correct out-of-sample classification, replicating the experts’ labels. Acoustic measures can be used by labs to describe USVs and compare data between groups, and provide insight into vocal-behavioral patterns of mice by automating the process on matching the experts’ call types.