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Prairie Vole Fidelity

December 15, 2015

Prairie voles that cheat on their mates might be able to blame their spatial memories.


104899_web female vole with pups AUBREY KELLY CORNELL UNIVERSITY

Female vole with pups. (Aubrey Kelly/Cornell University)


Cheating minds. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Prairie voles are one of very few monogamous mammals, but some occasionally do cheat on their mates. In the journal Science, University of Texas at Austin biologist Steve Phelps describes how poor spatial memory may be to blame. 

STEVE PHELPS (University of Texas at Austin):

We found what looks like a really interesting link between how they use space and their sexual fidelity and the link seems to be mediated somehow through their memory.


Voles with fewer receptors for vasopressin—a hormone involved in social behavior—in brain areas important for spatial memory wandered off more often. Perhaps they forgot past encounters with aggressive males protecting their mates. Voles with better memories stayed put and remained faithful. It’s not yet clear how the receptor affects memory, but as long as genes for fewer vasopressin receptors are passed on, at least some cheaters will prosper. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.