Last updated
Bank vole.jpg
The bank vole (Myodes glareolus) lives in woodland areas in Europe and Asia.
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Arvicolinae
Groups included
Cladistically included but traditionally excluded taxa

Voles are small rodents that are relatives of lemmings and hamsters, but with a stouter body; a shorter, hairy tail; a slightly rounder head; smaller ears and eyes; and differently formed molars (high-crowned with angular cusps instead of low-crowned with rounded cusps). They are sometimes known as meadow mice or field mice in North America and Australia.


Vole species form the subfamily Arvicolinae with the lemmings and the muskrats. There are approximately 155 different vole species.


Voles are small rodents that grow to 3–9 in (7.6–22.9 cm), depending on the species. Females can have five to ten litters per year. Gestation lasts for three weeks and the young voles reach sexual maturity in a month. As a result of this biological exponential growth, vole populations can grow very large within a short time. A mating pair can birth a hundred more voles in a year.

Voles outwardly resemble several other small animals. Moles, gophers, mice, rats and even shrews have similar characteristics and behavioral tendencies.

Voles thrive on small plants yet, like shrews, they will eat dead animals and, like mice or rats, they can live on almost any nut or fruit. In addition, voles target plants more than most other small animals, making their presence evident. Voles readily girdle small trees and ground cover much like a porcupine. This girdling can easily kill young plants and is not healthy for trees or other shrubs.

Voles often eat succulent root systems and burrow under plants or ground cover and eat away until the plant is dead. Bulbs in the ground are another favorite target for voles; their excellent burrowing and tunnelling skills give them access to sensitive areas without clear or early warning. The presence of large numbers of voles is often only identifiable after they have destroyed a number of plants. However, like other burrowing rodents, they also play beneficial roles, including dispersing nutrients throughout the upper soil layers. [1]


Many predators eat voles, including martens, owls, hawks, falcons, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, snakes, weasels, domestic cats and lynxes. Vole bones are often found in the pellets of the short-eared owl, the northern spotted owl, the saw-whet owl, the barn owl, the great gray owl, and the northern pygmy owl.[ citation needed ]


Releasing water voles in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales

The average life of the smaller vole species is three to six months. These voles rarely live longer than 12 months. Larger species, such as the European water vole, live longer and usually die during their second, or rarely their third, winter. As many as 88% of voles are estimated to die within the first month of life. [2]

Genetics and sexual behavior

The prairie vole is a notable animal model for its monogamous social fidelity, since the male is usually socially faithful to the female, and shares in the raising of pups. The woodland vole is also usually monogamous. Another species from the same genus, the meadow vole, has promiscuously mating males, and scientists have changed adult male meadow voles' behavior to resemble that of prairie voles in experiments in which a single gene was introduced into the brain by a virus. [3]

The behavior is influenced by the number of repetitions of a particular string of microsatellite DNA. Male prairie voles with the longest DNA strings spend more time with their mates and pups than male prairie voles with shorter strings. [4] However, other scientists have disputed the gene's relationship to monogamy, and cast doubt on whether the human version plays an analogous role. [5] Physiologically, pair-bonding behavior has been shown to be connected to vasopressin, dopamine, and oxytocin levels, with the genetic influence apparently arising via the number of receptors for these substances in the brain; the pair-bonding behavior has also been shown in experiments to be strongly modifiable by administering some of these substances directly.

Voles have a number of unusual chromosomal traits. Species have been found with 17 to 64 chromosomes. In some species, males and females have different chromosome numbers, a trait unusual in mammals, though it is seen in other organisms. Additionally, genetic material typically found on the Y chromosome has been found in both males and females in at least one species. In another species, the X chromosome contains 20% of the genome. All of these variations result in very little physical aberration; most vole species are virtually indistinguishable. [6]

Mating system

Voles may be either monogamous or polygamous, which leads to differing patterns of mate choice and parental care. Environmental conditions play a large part in dictating which system is active in a given population. Voles live in colonies due to the young remaining in the family group for relatively long periods. [7] In the genus Microtus , monogamy is preferred when resources are spatially homogenous and population densities are low and where the opposite of both conditions are realized polygamous tendencies arise. [8] Vole mating systems are also sensitive to the operational sex ratio and tend toward monogamy when males and females are present in equal numbers. Where one sex is more numerous than the other, polygamy is more likely. [9] However the most marked effect on mating system is population density and these effects can take place both inter and intra-specifically [8]

Male voles are territorial and tend to include territories of several female voles when possible. Under these conditions polyandry exists and males offer little parental care. [10] Males mark and aggressively defend their territories since females prefer males with the most recent marking in a given area. [11]

Voles prefer familiar mates through olfactory sensory exploitation. Monogamous voles prefer males who have yet to mate, while non-monogamous voles do not. [12] Mate preference in voles develops through cohabitation in as little as 24 hours. [11] This drives young male voles to show non-limiting preference toward female siblings. This is not inclusive to females' preference for males which may help to explain the absence of interbreeding indicators.[ clarification needed ]

Although females show little territoriality, under pair bonding conditions they tend to show aggression toward other female voles. [12] This behavior is flexible as some Microtus females share dens during the winter months, perhaps to conserve heat and energy. [13] Populations which are monogamous show relatively minor size differences between genders compared with those using polygamous systems. [14]

The grey-sided vole ( Myodes rufocanus ) exhibits male-biased dispersal as a means of avoiding incestuous matings. [15] Among those matings that involve inbreeding, the number of weaned juveniles in litters is significantly fewer than that from noninbred litters, due to inbreeding depression.

Brandt’s vole ( Lasiopodomys brandtii ) lives in groups that mainly consist of close relatives. However, they show no sign of inbreeding. [16] The mating system of these voles involves a type of polygyny for males and extra-group polyandry for females. This system increases the frequency of mating among distantly related individuals, and is achieved mainly by dispersal during the mating season. [16] Such a strategy is likely an adaptation to avoid the inbreeding depression that would be caused by expression of deleterious recessive alleles if close relatives mated.

Empathy and consolation

A 2016 study into the behavior of voles, Microtus ochrogaster specifically, found that voles comfort each other when mistreated, spending more time grooming a mistreated vole. Voles that were not mistreated had levels of stress-hormones that were similar to the voles that had been mistreated, suggesting that the voles were capable of empathizing with each other. This was further proven by blocking the vole's receptors for oxytocin, a hormone involved in empathy. When the oxytocin receptors were blocked this behavior stopped. [17]

This type of empathetic behavior has previously been thought to only occur in animals with advanced cognition, such as humans, apes, and elephants.

Vole clock

The vole clock is a method of dating archaeological strata using vole teeth. [18]


Related Research Articles

Arvicolinae subfamily of rodents

The Arvicolinae are a subfamily of rodents that includes the voles, lemmings, and muskrats. They are most closely related to the other subfamilies in the Cricetidae. Some authorities place the subfamily Arvicolinae in the family Muridae along with all other members of the superfamily Muroidea. Some refer to the subfamily as the Microtinae or rank the taxon as a full family, the Arvicolidae.

Meadow vole Species of mammal

The meadow vole, sometimes called the field mouse or meadow mouse, is a North American vole found across Canada, Alaska and the northern United States. Its range extends farther south along the Atlantic coast. One subspecies, the Florida salt marsh vole, is found in Florida, and is classified as endangered. Previously it was also found in Chihuahua, Mexico, but has not been recorded since 1998.

Water vole (North America) species of mammal

The water vole is the largest North American vole. It is found in the northwestern United States and southern parts of western Canada. This animal has been historically considered a member of genus Arvicola, but molecular evidence demonstrates that it is more closely related to North American Microtus species. Water voles are on the USDA Forest Service Region 2 sensitive species list because they maintain very small populations and there is high concern that their required habitat may be declining.

Southern bog lemming species of mammal

The southern bog lemming is a small North American lemming. Its range overlaps with the other species in genus Synaptomys, the northern bog lemming, in southeastern Canada, but extends further south.

Animal sexual behaviour Sexual behavior of non-human animals

Animal sexual behaviour takes many different forms, including within the same species. Common mating or reproductively motivated systems include monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, polygamy and promiscuity. Other sexual behaviour may be reproductively motivated or non-reproductively motivated.

Prairie vole Species of mammal

The prairie vole is a small vole found in central North America.

Bank vole Species of rodent

The bank vole is a small vole with red-brown fur and some grey patches, with a tail about half as long as its body. A rodent, it lives in woodland areas and is around 100 millimetres (3.9 in) in length. The bank vole is found in much of Europe and in northwestern Asia. It is native to Great Britain but not to Ireland, where it has been accidentally introduced, and has now colonised much of the south and southwest.

Common vole species of mammal

The common vole is a European rodent.

Steppe lemming species of mammal

The steppe lemming or steppe vole is a small, plump, light-grey rodent, similar in appearance to the Norway lemming, but not in the same genus. The steppe lemming eats shoots and leaves and is more active at night, though it is not strictly nocturnal. In the wild, it is found in Russia and Ukraine in steppes and semiarid environments. Fossil remains of this species have been found in areas as far west as Great Britain.

Pair bond Biological term

In biology, a pair bond is the strong affinity that develops in some species between a mating pair, often leading to the production and rearing of offspring and potentially a lifelong bond. Pair-bonding is a term coined in the 1940s that is frequently used in sociobiology and evolutionary biology circles. The term often implies either a lifelong socially monogamous relationship or a stage of mating interaction in socially monogamous species. It is sometimes used in reference to human relationships.

Monogamous pairing in animals refers to the natural history of mating systems in which species pair bond to raise offspring. This is associated, usually implicitly, with sexual monogamy.

Montane vole species of mammal

The montane vole is a species of vole native to the western United States and Canada.

Creeping vole species of mammal

The creeping vole, sometimes known as the Oregon meadow mouse, is a small rodent in the family Cricetidae. Ranging across the Pacific Northwest of North America, it is found in forests, grasslands, woodlands, and chaparral environments. The small-tailed, furry, brownish-gray mammal was first described in the scientific literature in 1839, from a specimen collected near the mouth of the Columbia River. The smallest vole in its range, it weighs around 19 g (0.67 oz). At birth, they weigh 1.6 g (0.056 oz), are naked, pink, unable to open their eyes, and the ear flaps completely cover the ear openings. Although not always common throughout their range, there are no major concerns for their survival as a species.

Wood lemming species of mammal

The wood lemming is a species of rodents in the family Cricetidae. It belongs to the rodent subfamily Arvicolinae, so is a relative of the voles, lemmings, and muskrats. It is found in the taiga biome of China, Finland, Mongolia, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.

C. Sue Carter Biologist and behavioral neurobiologist

C. Sue Carter is a biologist and behavioral neurobiologist. She is an internationally recognized expert in behavioral neuroendocrinology. In 2014 she was appointed Director of The Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University. Carter was the first person to identify the physiological mechanisms responsible for social monogamy.

Monogamy is a form of dyadic relationship in which an individual has only one partner during their lifetime—alternately, only one partner at any one time —as compared to non-monogamy. The term is also applied to the social behavior of some animals, referring to the state of having only one mate at any one time.

The Bruce effect, or pregnancy block, is the tendency for female rodents to terminate their pregnancies following exposure to the scent of an unfamiliar male. The effect was first noted in 1959 by Hilda M. Bruce, and has primarily been studied in laboratory mice. In mice, pregnancy can only be terminated prior to embryo implantation, but other species will interrupt even a late-term pregnancy.

Listrophorus is a genus of parasitic mites in the family Listrophoridae. North American species with their hosts include:

Monogamous pairing refers to a general relationship between an adult male and an adult female for the purpose of sexual reproduction. It is particularly common in birds, but there are examples of this occurrence in reptiles, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and mammals.

Inbreeding avoidance, or the inbreeding avoidance hypothesis, is a concept in evolutionary biology that refers to the prevention of the deleterious effects of inbreeding. The inbreeding avoidance hypothesis posits that certain mechanisms develop within a species, or within a given population of a species, as a result of assortative mating, natural and sexual selection in order to prevent breeding among related individuals in that species or population. Although inbreeding may impose certain evolutionary costs, inbreeding avoidance, which limits the number of potential mates for a given individual, can inflict opportunity costs. Therefore, a balance exists between inbreeding and inbreeding avoidance. This balance determines whether inbreeding mechanisms develop and the specific nature of said mechanisms.


  1. Dickman, Chris R. "Rodent–Ecosystem Relationships: a Review" in Singleton G, Hinds L, Leirs H, Zhang Z. ed. 1999. "Ecologically-based management of rodent pests". ACIAR Monograph No. 59, 494p Retrieved on 2018-03-28
  2. Daar, Sheila (December 1997). "How to Control Voles in Your Garden". VegetableGardener.com. Taunton Press. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
  3. Lim, Miranda M.; Wang, Zuoxin; Olazábal, Daniel E.; Ren, Xianghui; Terwilliger, Ernest F.; Young, Larry J. (2004). "Enhanced partner preference in a promiscuous species by manipulating the expression of a single gene". Nature . 429 (6993): 754–7. Bibcode:2004Natur.429..754L. doi:10.1038/nature02539. PMID   15201909. Referenced in Graham, Sarah (2004-06-17). "Gene Linked to Lasting Love in Voles". Scientific American .
  4. Hammock, E. A. D.; Young, LJ (2005). "Microsatellite Instability Generates Diversity in Brain and Sociobehavioral Traits". Science. 308 (5728): 1630–4. Bibcode:2005Sci...308.1630H. doi:10.1126/science.1111427. PMID   15947188. Summarized in Wade, Nicholas (2005-06-10). "DNA of Voles May Hint at Why Some Fathers Shirk Duties". The New York Times . Retrieved November 17, 2017.
  5. Fink, S. (2006). "Mammalian monogamy is not controlled by a single gene". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . 103 (29): 10956–10960. Bibcode:2006PNAS..10310956F. doi:10.1073/pnas.0602380103. PMC   1544156 . PMID   16832060.
  6. DeWoody, J. Andrew; Triant, Deb; Main, Douglas M. (2006-09-14). "Rodent's bizarre traits deepen mystery of genetics, evolution". Purdue.edu. Purdue University . Retrieved February 25, 2007.
  7. Potapov. M. Zadubrovskaya, I. Zabudrovskii, P. Potapova, O. Eviskov, V. 2011. Mating Systems in the Steppe Lemming (Lagurus lagurus) and Narrow-Skulled Vole (Microtus gregalis) From the Northern Kulunda Steppe. Russian Journal of Ecology. 43(1): 40-44.
  8. 1 2 Streatfeild, C. Mabry, K. Keane, B. Crist, T. Solomon, N. 2011. Intraspecific Variabilityin the Social and Gentetic Mating System of Prairie Voles, Microtus ochrogaster. Animal Behaviour. 82(6): 1387-1398.
  9. Zhang, J. Zhang, Z. 2003. Influence of Operational Sex Ratio and Density on the Copulatory Behaviour and Mating System of Brandt’s Vole Microtus brandt. Acta Theriologica. 48(3): 335-346.
  10. Ostfeld, R. 1986. Territoriality and Mating System of California Voles. Journal of Animal Ecology. 55: 691-706.
  11. 1 2 Parker, K. Phillips, K. Lee, T. 2001. Development of Selective Partner Preferences in Captive Male and Female Meadow Voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus. Animal Behavior. 61: 1217-1226.
  12. 1 2 Salo, A. Dewsbury, D. 1995. Three Experiments on Mate Choice in Meadow Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 109(1): 42-46.
  13. Lambin, X. Krebs, C. Scott, B. 1992. Spacing Systems of the Tundra Vole (Microtus oeconomus) During the Breeding Season in Canada’s Western Arctic. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 70: 2068-2072.
  14. Lee, C. Chui, C. Lin, L. Lin, Y. 2014. Partner Preference and Mating System of the Taiwan Field Vole (Microtus kikuchii). Taiwania, 59(2): 127-138.
  15. Ishibashi Y, Saitoh T (2008). "Role of male-biased dispersal in inbreeding avoidance in the grey-sided vole (Myodes rufocanus)". Mol. Ecol. 17 (22): 4887–96. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2008.03969.x. PMID   19140979.
  16. 1 2 Liu XH, Yue LF, Wang da W, Li N, Cong L (2013). "Inbreeding avoidance drives consistent variation of fine-scale genetic structure caused by dispersal in the seasonal mating system of Brandt's voles". PLOS ONE. 8 (3): e58101. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...858101L. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058101. PMC   3597616 . PMID   23516435.
  17. "Animal behaviour: Voles console stressed friends". Nature. 529 (7587): 441. 2016-01-28. Bibcode:2016Natur.529T.441.. doi: 10.1038/529441d . ISSN   0028-0836.
  18. Currant, Andy (Natural History Museum, London) (2000). "2000 series: Elveden, Suffolk". Time Team . Channel 4. Archived from the original on 2008-01-17. Retrieved 31 May 2014.