When to cheat: Modeling dynamics of paternity and promiscuity in socially monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster)

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In many socially monogamous species, individuals form long-term pair bonds and males mate guard females. Such behavior is thought to help secure intra-pair fertilizations, the result of intra-pair copulations (IPCs), and ensure paternity. However, socially monogamous males are also often opportunistic and seek additional mating opportunities with other females, leaving their partner unguarded. The success associated with a male's decision to seek more mates over guarding his partner might be impacted by the activity of other males, specifically the proportion of other males leaving their territories to seek extra-pair copulations (EPCs). The amount of EPC-seeking males can impact the likelihood of a given male encountering an unguarded paired female, but also of being cuckolded (losing IPCs). It remains unclear under which conditions it is optimal to stay and guard or seek EPCs. Using field data from socially monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) to generate parameters, we used optimal performance modeling (Monte Carlo simulations) to ask when is it most reproductively advantageous for a bonded male to seek EPCs, despite the risk of losing IPCs. We defined three types of males: exclusive mating bonded males (true residents), non-exclusive mating bonded residents (roving residents), and unpaired males (wanderers). We first modeled the success of an individual male living in a context that incorporated only true and roving residents. We next added wandering males to this model. Finally, we considered the effects of including wandering males and unpaired females in our model. For all contexts, we found that as EPC-seeking in the population increases, the potential reproductive benefit for seeking EPCs increasingly outpaces the rate of cuckolding. In other words, we observe a shift in optimal strategy from true residents to rovers among paired males. Our models also demonstrate that reproductive fitness is likely to remain constant, despite the shift toward obtaining success via EPCs over IPCs. Our results show the dynamic nature of reproductive decision-making, and demonstrate that alternative reproductive decisions yield subtle but important differences despite appearing as balanced strategies.




Rice, M. A., Restrepo, L. F., & Ophir, A. G. (2018). When to cheat: Modeling dynamics of paternity and promiscuity in socially monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 6(SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2018.00141

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