Prairie Voles

Sense of smell is primal.

Sometimes, riding the bus into work, I smell my seat-mates, which is not always pleasant.

Sweat, vomit, cigarettes and booze smells waft downwind.

When my bus delivers me to work, I take the stairs and hold my breath the first two flights because vagrants pee in the stairwell. Workers wash the concrete with bleach but you can still smell the urine.

It’s not just our building: Portland has myriad corners where vagrants pee. Once, in the early morning, I was walking near Powell’s Books and a man dropped his drawers and peed on the curb.

Smells can repel but they can also intoxicate. Just ask someone in love.

My baker friend told me about prairie voles, wee critters scientists study because of their robust relationships. Seems that scientists are interested in how and why these small mammals mate for life and look to them to unlock the mysteries of attraction and monogamy.

Turns out the prairie vole—discussed widely in the Ivory Tower—has migrated to the pages of pop culture as the subject of Love. One researcher noted that prairie voles not only remember their partners’ scents: they form an olfactory map of their mates.

Author and scientist Helen Fisher, in an article for The Economist, noted that prairie voles “become addicted to each other through a process of sexual imprinting mediated by odor.”

Researchers are cautious about making a leap from rodent to human, but continue to wonder how humans imprint smells.

The smell of a lover is powerful stuff: wash away the cologne and soap and deodorant and lotion and find the secret scent buried beneath the layers of potions and products. Seems that skin-scent is the key to attraction.

Buried treasure.

[Vole artwork from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in health, science, science communication, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Prairie Voles

  1. Pingback: Prairie Voles | Cynthia Coleman's Blog | Wisconsin Prairies |

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