In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster).
These animals are often used to study pair bonding because they are one of only a handful of mammalian species that form lifelong socially monogamous pair bonds after mating and cohabitating for at least 6 hours. According to a study published several years ago in Nature Neuroscience, this pair bonding behavior is regulated by specific genes in their brains that are activated during mating. Research suggests that the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin may be involved in turning on these genes as animals in so-called monogamous relationships have more receptors for these hormones than animals that have not mated. New research suggests that these pair bonds may also be good for the animal’s cardiovascular health.
Humans with sufficient social support tend to be healthier and have longer lifespans than people without strong social networks. A new study published in Autonomic Neuroscience examined whether forming socially monogamous pair bonds had any health benefits for prairie voles. The idea was that forming these bonds may alter the animal’s autonomic nervous system thus promoting cardiovascular health. In support of their hypothesis, the researchers found that male prairie voles that cohabitated with females for two weeks and formed pair-bonds had improved autonomic nervous system function and cardiovascular health as compared to males that did not form pair bonds.
Image: Aubrey Kelly
Wang H, Duclot F, Liu Y, Wang Z, Kabbaj M. Histone deacetylase inhibitors facilitate partner preference formation in female prairie voles. Nature Neuroscience. 16:919-924, 2013.
Lewis R, Wilkins B, Benjamin B, Curtis JT. Cardiovascular control is associated with pair-bond success in male prairie voles. Autonomic Neuroscience. 208:93-102, 2017.