Complex social behavior in Microtus voles and other mammals has been postulated to be under the direct genetic control of a single locus: the arginine vasopressin 1a receptor (avpr1a) gene. Using a phylogenetic approach, we show that a repetitive element in the promoter region of avpr1a, which reportedly causes social monogamy, is actually widespread in nonmonogamous Microtus and other rodents. There was no evidence for intraspecific polymorphism in regard to the presence or absence of the repetitive element. Among 25 rodent species studied, the element was absent in only two closely related nonmonogamous species, indicating that this absence is certainly the result of an evolutionarily recent loss. Our analyses further demonstrate that the repetitive structures upstream of the avpr1a gene in humans and primates, which have been associated with social bonding, are evolutionarily distinct from those in rodents. Our evolutionary approach reveals that monogamy in rodents is not controlled by a single polymorphism in the promoter region of the avpr1a gene. We thus resolve the contradiction between the claims for an evolutionarily conserved genetic programming of social behavior in mammals and the vast evidence for highly complex and flexible mating systems.
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