The nature and frequency of social interactions among free-living prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster)
Hypotheses relating the behavior of voles to their population cycles often assume that the rate of social interaction increases with population density. To test this assumption, we examined the frequency of social interactions in a population of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) over a 7-year period. In addition, we characterized space use by resident animals, patterns of visitation by nonresidents to nests, and participants in social interactions. Social groups within the population typically displayed little overlap in their use of space, even at high population densities. Nevertheless, nonresidents, particularly wandering males, were captured as visitors at nests. The number of visits per social group did not increase in a simple linear manner with population density and was particularly variable when there were fewer than 100 animals/ha. At such times, more single females and fewer pairs received visits from males than expected based on the frequency of occurrence of these groups in the population; a similar pattern was noted during periods of high population density (≥100 animals/ha) but the comparisons failed to reach statistical significance. Furthermore, at high population density, more communal groups received visits from females than expected. Patterns of visitation to communal groups were influenced by the number of adult male residents (winter only), but not by the number of adult female residents or presence of philopatric female offspring. These data indicate that the frequency of social contact in prairie voles does not increase linearly with population density and is influenced by the spacing and possible mate-guarding behavior of resident animals.
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