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prairie vole

Microtus ochrogaster

What do they look like?

Prairie voles usually have dark brown to black hairs that are tipped with black or brownish-yellow. This makes the fur look grizzled. In spite of this, some animals may have black, yellow, albino, or spotted fur. The belly is light tan, and the tail is dark on top and light on the bottom.

Female prairie voles have three pairs of mammary glands. All members of the species can be identified using their teeth, which have some unique ridges on them. The third lower molar has no closed triangles and three transverse loops. The third upper molar has two closed triangles.

Adults are 125 to 180 mm long, with the tail adding 25 to 45 mm to this total. Hind foot length is 17 to 23 mm, ear length is 10 to 15 mm, and weights are typically between 30 and 70 grams. Males and females are about the same size and color. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990; Stalling, 1999; University of Kansas, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    30 to 70 g
    1.06 to 2.47 oz
  • Range length
    125 to 180 mm
    4.92 to 7.09 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.41 W
    AnAge

Where do they live?

Prairie voles, Microtus ochrogaster, occur from northeastern New Mexico to northern Alabama, western West Virginia, and northwest to central Alberta. (Stalling, 1990)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Prairie voles are common in prairies, ungrazed pastures, fallow fields, weedy areas, road right-of-ways, and sometimes in soybean or alfalfa fields. If meadow voles occur in the same area, prairie voles occupy the areas with shorter, drier, and more varied vegetation. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990)

How do they reproduce?

Prairie voles have different mating systems depending on the season, amount of food available, and their social structure. Some male-female pairs mate only with each other while others mate with multiple partners. (Getz and Carter, 1996; Stalling, 1990; Stalling, 1999)

Prairie voles breed all the time, except when it is too cold or too hot. Most reproduction happens between May and October. The lowest levels occur in December and January when it is cold and wet.

Pregnancy lasts 21 days. A mother gives birth to litters of 3 or 4 young. How many young are in a litter depends on the mother's age and the time of year. Young are not very well developed at birth. They have no fur, and both their eyes and ears are closed.

Young grow up quickly, and can crawl by the age of 5 days. Babies eat solid foods by the age of 12 days. After they are 2 to 3 weeks of age, the mother no longer provides her babies with milk. The young probably become independent about this time. Young enter their first molt at about 24 days of age.

Females are able to breed by the time they are 30 to 40 days old. Males take longer to be ready to breed, and cannot do so until they are 35 to 45 days old. Young are full grown by 2 months of age. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990; Stalling, 1999)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    These animals can produce several litters per year. The maximum is about one litter every month and a half.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs year-round.
  • Range number of offspring
    3 to 4
  • Average number of offspring
    3.8
    AnAge
  • Average gestation period
    21 days
  • Average gestation period
    23 days
    AnAge
  • Range weaning age
    2 to 3 weeks
  • Average time to independence
    3 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    30 to 45 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    30 to 45 days

Both males and females care for the young, which are born naked and helpless in a grass-lined nest. The young average 3 grams at birth. Fur appears on the young by the second day, they can crawl by 5 days, begin eating solid food at 12 days, and are weaned between 2 and 3 weeks of age. The young begin to molt into their adult pelage by 24 days and reach their adult size within 2 months of birth. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990; Stalling, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

Prairie voles usually live for less than 1 year, but they can live up to 3 years in captivity. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    3 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    1 (high) years
    AnAge

How do they behave?

Prairie voles are active most at dawn and dusk, but show some changes in this pattern with the seasons. Daytime activity increases in the winter and decreases in summer. Prairie voles are found in three kinds of social arrangements: as a mated pair, as single females, and as small communal groups. More prairie voles live as male-female pairs during the warm months of the year and more live in small communal groups during the cold months of the year. (Getz and Carter, 1996; Stalling, 1990)

Home Range

The size of individual home ranges has not been reported.

How do they communicate with each other?

Like other voles, prairie voles probably use several methods of communication. Different squeaks and trills may be used along with scent cues. Touching is important to these animals, allowing communication between mates and the young in their nest. Different body postures may play some role in defensive interactions within the species. (Stalling, 1990)

What do they eat?

Prairie voles are herbivorous. Food items include soft basal segments of grasses, tubers and roots, and seeds, which may be stored below ground. Insects are eaten when they are available. In winter, prairie voles sometimes eat the bark of woody vegetation. (Kurta, 1995; Kurta, 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Prairie voles use an extensive runway system comprized of grass tunnels that helps to hide them from predators. Prairie voles are preyed upon by a wide variety of small to medium-sized predators. They are important as a prey base for raptors, owls, snakes, weasels, foxes, and bobcats. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Prairie voles are important in nutrient cycling in prairie ecosystems and as prey animals for many predator species. (Kurta, 1995; Stalling, 1990)

Do they cause problems?

In places near agricultural fields or gardens, prairie voles may be considered pests. Prairie voles cause damage to trees by stem injury, with pines most commonly affected. (Lesnar, 1997; Stalling, 1999)

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • crop pest

How do they interact with us?

Prairie voles are important parts of the prairie ecosystems in which they live. They have also been used in research for many decades. (Stalling, 1999)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

Loss of native prairies is causing a decline in prairie vole populations in parts of the upper Midwest. They are listed as endangered in the state of Michigan. (Lesnar, 1997)

Some more information...

Microtus is a greek word for "small ear" and ochrogaster is Greek for "yellow belly". Prairie voles undergo a two to four year population cycle where populations increase and decrease dramatically in that cycle. (Lesnar, 1997; Stalling, 1990)

Contributors

Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Melissa VanderLinden (author), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chris Yahnke (editor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

endothermic

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical savanna and grassland
savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland
visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Getz, L., C. Carter. 1996. Prairie vole partnerships. American Scientist, 84: 56-62.

Kurta, A. 1995. Mammals of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Lesnar, D. 1997. "Prairie Vole (*Microtus ochrogaster*)" (On-line). Accessed 28 November 2001 at http://www.northern.edu/natsource/MAMMALS/Prairi1.htm.

Stalling, D. 1990. *Microtus ochrogaster*. Mammalian Species, 355: 1-9.

Stalling, D. 1999. Prairie vole| Microtus ochrogaster . D Wilson, S Ruff, eds. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press in Association with the American Society of Mammalogists.

University of Kansas, 2000. "*Microtus ochrogaster*" (On-line). Mammals of Kansas. Accessed 28 November 2001 at http://www.ksr.ku.edu/libres/Mammals_of_Kansas/microt-ochro.html.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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VanderLinden, M. 2002. "Microtus ochrogaster" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 20, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Microtus_ochrogaster/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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