Dominance ranks in male and female prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) were determined from 6 measurements that mimicked environmental situations that might be encountered by prairie voles in communal groups, including agonistic interactions resulting from competition for food and water and encounters in burrows. Male and female groups of 6 individuals each were tested against one another in pairwise encounters (i.e., dyads) for 5 of the measurements and together as a group in a 6th measurement. Two types of response variables, aggressive behaviors and possession time of a limiting resource, were collected during trials, and those data were used to determine cardinal ranks and principal component ranks for all animals within each group. Cardinal ranks and principal component ranks seldom yielded similar rankings for each animal across measurements. However, dominance measurements that were conducted in similar environmental contexts, regardless of the response variable recorded, ranked animals similarly. Our results suggest that individual dominance measurements assessed situation- or resource-specific responses. Our study demonstrates problems inherent in determining dominance rankings of individuals within groups, including choosing measurements, response variables, and statistical techniques. Researchers should avoid using a single measurement to represent social dominance until they have first demonstrated that a dominance relationship between 2 individuals has been learned (i.e., subsequent interactions show a reduced response rather than an escalation), that this relationship is relatively constant through time, and that the relationship is not context dependent. Such assessments of dominance status between all dyads then can be used to generate dominance rankings within social groups.
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