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Exploration in a dispersal task: Effects of early experience and correlation with other behaviors in prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster).

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Socially monogamous prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) display remarkable individual variation in social behaviors, which has been associated with differences in early life experience and neuropeptide receptor densities. These differences are also seen in the wild, where approximately 70% of young voles remain in their natal group as non-breeding alloparents, while the other 30% disperse. We investigated whether natural variation in early parental care could contribute to offspring's willingness to "disperse" (willingness to explore) in a laboratory context. Behavioral differences between dispersers and residents could also provide a way to interpret individual variation in other behaviors commonly observed under laboratory conditions. Breeder pairs ranked as high, medium or low-contact, according to the amount of early parental care they provided to offspring, were used to produce and rear experimental subjects. Effects of early parental care on the offspring's willingness to disperse were seen at post-natal day 21, with high-contact offspring spending more time in the start cage and low-contact offspring spending more time exploring. Variations in parental care were also associated with differences in juvenile and adult behaviors that could potentially encourage philopatry or dispersal behavior in the wild. High-contact offspring displayed less anxiety-like behavior compared to low-contact animals. Low-contact offspring displayed the lowest amount of alloparental care. High-contact offspring spent more time in side-by-side contact with a potential partner compared to medium and low-contact offspring. These results suggest that variations in early parental care can impact weanlings' exploratory behavior, but that philopatry is not driven by high anxiety.

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