Animals
5:46 am
Sun February 9, 2014

Learning About Love From Prairie Vole Bonding

Originally published on Sun February 9, 2014 11:44 am

Most mammals have "love 'em and leave 'em" relationships, but not the prairie vole. They mate for life, sharing nest-building duties and an equal role in raising their young.

It looks a lot like a relationship many of us would like to have. Prairie voles have long been of interest to scientists looking at the neurobiology of bonding and monogamy.

Larry Young from the primate research center at Emory University in Atlanta tells NPR's Rachel Martin there's a ritual that happens when a male prairie vole spots an eligible female.

"The first thing he has to do is to get her interested in him, and he does that by courting her, and the smell of the pheromones gets her brain activated," he says. "And after about 24 hours, she's ready to mate."

In the wild, prairie voles don't have a long life expectancy — they're kind of at the bottom of the food chain. But in the lab, that bond is strong enough to keep them together for a long time.

"They'll stay together for the rest of their life, which in the lab is about two or three years," Young says.

Young says that even in the wild, in about 80 percent of cases where a vole loses a partner, it never takes on another.

Now, that's not to say voles are always totally faithful. Young says that if a male is wandering through the prairie and encounters a female ready to mate, he might mate with her. He says what is important, though, is that the vole always returns to the mate he's bonded with.

"That's what we're really studying here; we're studying the bond," he says. "Only about 3 percent of mammals exhibit this kind of monogamy."

Young, author of The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, says studying the voles can help understand how to "spark that neurochemistry in our brain that will help us maintain lifelong relationships with our partner."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most mammals have love 'em and leave 'em relationships, but not the prairie vole. They mate for life, sharing nest-building duties, and they share an equal role in raising their young. It looks a lot like a relationship many of us would like to have. Prairie voles have long been of interest to scientists, looking at the neurobiology of bonding and monogamy. Larry Young is one of those scientists, from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He joins me now. Welcome to the program, Larry.

LARRY YOUNG: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's start with the courtship phase of this relationship. What happens when a male prairie vole spots an eligible female?

YOUNG: Well, the first thing he has to do is to get her interested in him and he does that by kind of just courting her. And the smell of her pheromones gets her brain activated and she starts turning out steroid hormones, like estrogen. And after about 24 hours she's ready to mate.

MARTIN: OK. So, in the wild, prairie voles don't have a long life expectancy. But in the lab, where they're under the conditions where they can have longer lives, I understand that bond is strong enough to keep them together for a long time.

YOUNG: Absolutely. They'll stay together for the rest of their life, which in the lab is around two or three years. But even in the wild, they're known as the potato chip of the prairie because they are preyed upon by hawks and other things. But, you know, they can live for a year or so. And in about 80 percent of the cases where a male or a female loses their partner, they never take on another partner. So, they really do stay together for life.

MARTIN: Wow. That's amazing. They're not always faithful though.

YOUNG: Yes. Actually, this is one of the features that actually I think makes it an even better model for humans than you might think. Because even though they are together, if a male is wandering through the prairie and a female who's in estrous comes by, he may mate with her. But the important thing is he comes back to his partner at night. And that's what we're really studying here. We're studying the bond between the two.

MARTIN: That's not enough, Larry. That's not enough...

YOUNG: I'm sorry. That's...

MARTIN: ...to just come home.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: ...that's the best that we can do with these animals. And in fact, most monogamous species - only about 3 percent of mammals exhibit this kind of monogamy. But in almost all of those species, there is some cheating that occurs.

MARTIN: Does all this mean that one day there will be some kind of infidelity vaccine? I mean, is that possible? Is that why you're studying the voles?

YOUNG: No, we're not studying the voles to try to find an infidelity vaccine or even a love vaccine. No, I think the importance of this work is, you know, if we understand the biology underlying relationships, maybe we can help get better ideas about how to improve those relationships, how to change our behaviors to help spark that neurochemistry in our brain that will help us maintain lifelong relationships with our partner.

MARTIN: A lot to learn from the romantic patterns of voles. Larry Young. He's the author of "The Chemistry Between Us." Thanks so much for talking with us, Larry.

YOUNG: Thank you for having me. It's been wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUEEN: (Singing) Crazy thing called love.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.