Female—female interactions and social stress in prairie voles
Trios of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) composed of either two estrous sibling or nonsibling females and one male were monitored via time-lapse videotaping over 72 hr. Social and sexual behaviors were analyzed as a function of trio type (sibling or nonsibling) and fate (survivor or nonsurvivor) across 12-h time blocks. Within nonsibling trios, females that were able to maintain prolonged physical contact with the male within the first 3 days of trio formation later survived and successfully produced litters; females that did not maintain male contact later died of undetermined causes, presumably related to social stress. Frequencies of sexual behavior were similar in both trio types and both surviving and nonsurviving females received equivalent amounts of copulatory stimulation from the male. Sibling groups exhibited higher levels of female—female side-by-side contact; non-sibling groups exhibited greater amounts of female-initiated anogenital sniffing, and female-initiated aggression. Female—female social interactions may be determined by prior familiarity and/or relatedness and may play a dominant role in determining the social organization and mating system of this species.