Changes in Paternal Responsiveness of Prairie Voles ( Microtus ochrogaster) in Response to Olfactory Cues and Continuous Physical Contact with a Female

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In mammals, paternal care is rarely displayed, and we know little about the mechanisms regulating this behavior. Prairie voles ( Microtus ochrogaster) are ideal mammals for the study of paternal behavior because they are a monogamous, bi-parental species that is easily raised in the laboratory. Paternal responsiveness occurs at moderate levels in sexually-naive voles and is heightened following a short cohabitation period of 72 h with a female. To determine how increased levels of paternal care are maintained after the initial cohabitation period, we tested the paternal behavior of males that were housed in isolation, were in physical contact with a female, or were exposed to various olfactory cues. The results indicate that the absence of odor cues from a female did not diminish the male’s motivation to care for infants following the initial cohabitation period. In contrast, odor cues from a male appeared to negatively influence the male’s paternal tendencies. The data also show that males that had continuous physical contact with a female spent more time responding paternally and more time hovering over the young compared to males that were housed alone. Together, these results suggest that although paternal behavior is maximized in response to continuous physical contact with females, olfactory cues may not be necessary for the maintenance of heightened paternal behavior.