|A snuggly prairie vole family. Photo from theNerdPatrol at Wikimedia Commons.|
Prairie voles are small North American rodents that form monogamous pair bonds, share parental duties, and defend their homes. Although prairie voles form monogamous pairs, that does not mean they are sexually exclusive. About a quarter of prairie vole pups are conceived outside of their parents’ union.
Not all male prairie voles cheat on their partners at the same rates. In fact, some males are very sexually faithful. It turns out, there are both costs and benefits to being faithful and to cheating. Mariam Okhovat, Alejandro Berrio, Gerard Wallace, and Steve Phelps from the University of Texas at Austin, and Alex Ophir from Cornell University used radio-telemetry to track male prairie voles for several weeks to explore what some of these costs and benefits might be. Compared to males that only sired offspring with their own partner, unfaithful males had larger home ranges, intruded on more territories of other individuals, and encountered females more often. However, these unfaithful males were also more likely to be cheated on when they were away (probably because they were away more). I guess even rodents live by The Golden Rule.
|Maps of how paired male voles in this study used space. The solid red/orange/yellow peaks show where a faithful male (in the left map) and unfaithful male (in the right map) spent their time in relation to where other paired males spent their time (showed by open blue peaks). Image from the Okhovat et al. Science paper (2015).|
Vasopressin is a hormone that has been found to affect social behaviors such as aggression and pair bonding when it acts in the brain. Mariam, Alejandro, Gerard, Alex, and Steve all set out to determine how vasopressin in the brain may relate to sexual fidelity in prairie voles. They found that faithful males had lots of a particular type of vasopressin receptor (called V1aR) in certain brain areas involved in spatial memory. Surprisingly, faithful males did not have more V1aR in brain regions typically associated with pair bonding and aggression. A male that has more V1aR in spatial memory regions might better remember where his own mate is and where other males have been aggressive, which would decrease the chances that he would intrude on other territories in search of other females and increase the time that he spends home with his own mate. A male that has less V1aR in spatial memory regions might be less likely to learn from his negative experiences and more likely to sleep around.
|Photos of a brain section from a faithful male (left) and unfaithful male (right). The dark shading shows the density of V1aR vasopressin receptors. The arrows show the location of the retrosplenial cortex (RSC), a brain area involved in spatial memory. Faithful males had significantly more V1aR receptors in the RSC compared to unfaithful males. Image from the Okhovat et al. Science paper (2015).|
The research team then found genotype variations that related to having lots or not much V1aR in one of these spatial memory regions (called retrosplenial cortex … but we’ll just call it RSC). They confirmed these findings with a breeding study, in which they reared siblings that were genetically similar, but some had the genotype they predicted would result in lots of V1aR in RSC and some had the genotype they predicted would result in very little V1aR in RSC. They confirmed that these genetic variations correspond with the amount of vasopressin receptor in this specific spatial memory area.
The researchers then looked closer at the different versions of this vasopressin receptor gene in the RSC brain region to see if differences in the amount of vasopressin receptors in RSC may be caused by the epigenetic state of the gene (i.e. how active the gene is). They found that the genotype that results in very little V1aR in RSC had many more potential methylation sites, which can repress gene activity.
All of this data together tells a very interesting story. Male prairie voles that have the genotype for more V1aR vasopressin receptors in their RSC part of their brain are more likely to remember where their home and mate are and to remember where other aggressive prairie voles are, which will make them more likely to spend more time with their partner, to be sexually faithful and to have sexually faithful partners. Male prairie voles that have the genotype for less V1aR in their RSC are more likely to forget where their home and mate are and where other aggressive prairie voles are, which will make them more likely to cheat and to be cheated on. Overall, faithful and unfaithful male prairie voles have roughly the same number of offspring, but advantages may emerge with changes in population density. Prairie vole populations vary anywhere from 25 to 600 voles per hectare from year to year. When population densities are high, you (and your partner) are more likely to encounter more potential mates and it may benefit you to cheat (and have a “cheater’s brain”). When population densities are low, you (and your partner) are less likely to encounter more potential mates and it may benefit you to be faithful (and have a “faithful brain”). But when populations fluctuate between high and low densities, both faithful and unfaithful genotypes will get passed along from generation to generation.
Want to know more? Check this out:
Okhovat, M., Berrio, A., Wallace, G., Ophir, A., & Phelps, S. (2015). Sexual fidelity trade-offs promote regulatory variation in the prairie vole brain Science, 350 (6266), 1371-1374 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5791