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Learning About Love From Prairie Vole Bonding

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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