We conducted three experiments with females in different stages of reproductive condition to test alternative hypotheses for the function of scent marking in female prairie voles, Microtus ochrogaster. The three reproductive categories were isolated females prior to sexual stimulation (anoestrous), sexually stimulated (oestrous) and lactating. Females in different reproductive condition were given the opportunity to scent mark clean unmarked substrate or areas that had previously been marked by adult females or adult males. The numbers of scent marks deposited by females did not differ statistically for females in different reproductive condition. However, there was a trend for anoestrous females to mark the most, oestrous females less, and lactating females the least. The lack of scent marking by lactating females might be to reduce conspicuousness to conspecifics or predators. Oestrous females tended to mark the most in the area marked previously by males, although the difference was not statistically significant.
Our results provide some support for a mate-attraction hypothesis and a territorial-defense hypothesis, but were most consistent with a self-advertisement hypothesis. Over marking was uncommon and did not differ by experiment or sex of previous donor. Our results suggest that the number and placement of scent marks by females are highly variable and function primarily to convey individual identity.