Sexual fidelity trade-offs promote regulatory variation in the prairie vole brain

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Science  11 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6266, pp. 1371-1374
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5791

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From faithfulness to spatial memory

Natural selection shapes traits to be as adaptive as possible for a given environment. Okhovat et al. show that such varying selection also shapes variation in social behavior and the brain (see the Perspective by Robinson). Variation in male fidelity among monogamous prairie voles reflects differences in the expression, regulation, and epigenetic status of a vasopressin receptor that functions in spatial memory. Thus, the trade-offs males face between fidelity and infidelity may promote heritable variation that is important for spatial memory and maintain variation in their levels of fidelity.

Science, this issue p. 1371; see also p. 1310


Individual variation in social behavior seems ubiquitous, but we know little about how it relates to brain diversity. Among monogamous prairie voles, levels of vasopressin receptor (encoded by the gene avpr1a) in brain regions related to spatial memory predict male space use and sexual fidelity in the field. We find that trade-offs between the benefits of male fidelity and infidelity are reflected in patterns of territorial intrusion, offspring paternity, avpr1a expression, and the evolutionary fitness of alternative avpr1a alleles. DNA variation at the avpr1a locus includes polymorphisms that reliably predict the epigenetic status and neural expression of avpr1a, and patterns of DNA diversity demonstrate that avpr1a regulatory variation has been favored by selection. In prairie voles, trade-offs in the fitness consequences of social behaviors seem to promote neuronal and molecular diversity.

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