The Prairie vole is a small vole that lives in Central North America. It is widely found across the midwest, in grasslands and upland fields. They build underground runways alongside other voles. In North America, these animals are popular as field mice or meadow mice. They are characterized by short ears and a short tail and their yellowish fur on their underside. The Prairie vole is very similar in appearance to the meadow vole, but the latter do not have a grizzled appearance, and seldom have a yellowish belly.
Prairie voles inhabit northeastern New Mexico up to northern Alabama, the west part of West Virginia (the United States), and the northwest to central Alberta (Canada). They are common on prairies, ungrazed pastures, weedy areas, fallow fields, road right-of-ways, and are also sometimes in alfalfa or soybean fields. If Meadow voles live in the same area, Prairie voles are found where there is shorter, drier, and more variety of vegetation.
Habits and lifestyle
The Prairie vole is a crepuscular species, though its activity periods change with the seasons. Activity during the day increases in winter and decreases during the summer. Prairie voles have three types of social arrangements: mated pairs, single females, and small communal groups, and the distribution of the social groupings varies seasonally, with more male-female pairs during warmer months and more communal behavior during the colder months. Voles have a system of runways above the ground as well as underground tunnels, spending most of their time underground. Their burrows help them to stay safe and secure from predators. These animals are good diggers and good swimmers. When threatened, they stamp their hind feet and will make noises to threaten the other vole.
Diet and nutrition
Prairie voles are herbivorous and their food includes the soft basal parts of grasses, roots and tubers, as well as seeds, which they may store underground. Insects are eaten when available. In winter, these voles will sometimes eat the bark of woody vegetation.
The mating of Prairie voles varies with the season, food availability, and the communal social structure. Some of the male-female pairs practice monogamy, whereas other males and females will mate with multiple partners (a polygynous mating system). This species breeds year-round except when winters and summers are severe. Most reproductive activity takes place between May and October, with the lowest levels during December and January. The gestation period is 21 days, and 3 or 4 hairless babies are born. Altricial at birth, they have their eyes and ears closed. Developing rapidly, at 5 days of old they can crawl. They eat solid foods by12 days. Weaning is at 2 to 3 weeks old and the first molt is at around 24 days old. Females are mature from 30 to 40 days, males at 35 to 45. The adult size is gained by the time they are 2 months old.
This species is faced with no major threats across its entire range. Loss of native prairies, however, is causing Prairie vole populations to decline in some upper midwest areas.
According to IUCN, Prairie vole is common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) and its numbers today remain stable.
Due to their choice of diet, Prairie voles have an important part to play in nutrient cycling within prairie ecosystems and also as prey for many predator species (raptors, owls, snakes, weasels, foxes).
Fun facts for kids
- Throughout the world there are about 155 species of voles.
- The scientific name of the Prairie vole, ‘Microtus ochrogaster’, comes from the Greek, with the genus name translating as "small ear" and its specific name meaning "yellow belly".
- Prairie voles use postures to communicate with enemies or competitors. A threat is signaled by extending their head forward, chattering their teeth and raising their forefeet. Other postures consist of the upright stance, the lunge, wrestling, boxing, the chase, and retreat.
- Voles sometimes have population fluctuations as large as 14 to 500 individuals per acre.
- Voles can communicate with quiet or sharp squeals. They also communicate by using scent marks and chemical signals.