Integrative studies of genetics, neurobiology and behaviour indicate that polymorphism in specific genes contributes to variation observed in some complex social behaviours. The neuropeptide arginine vasopressin plays an important role in the regulation of a variety of social behaviours, including social attachment of males to females, through its action on the vasopressin 1a receptor (V1aR). In socially monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster), polymorphism in the length of microsatellite DNA within the regulatory region of the gene (avpr1a) encoding the V1aR predicts differences among males in neural expression of V1aRs and partner preference under laboratory conditions. However, understanding the extent to which V1aR mediates variation in prairie vole social and reproductive behaviour observed in nature requires investigating the consequences of avpr1a polymorphism and environmental influences under ecologically relevant conditions. We examined the relationship between avpr1a length polymorphism and monogamy among male prairie voles living in 0.1 ha enclosures during a time similar to their natural lifespan. We found no evidence that avpr1a genotype of males predicts variation in social monogamy measured in the field but some indices of social monogamy were affected by population density. Parentage data indicated that a male’s avpr1a genotype significantly influenced the number of females with which he sired offspring and the total number of offspring sired. Total brain concentrations of V1aR mRNA were not associated with either male behaviour or avpr1a genotype. These data show that melding ecological field studies with neurogenetics can substantially augment our understanding of the effects of genes and environment on social behaviours.
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