Karen Bales: Expert on Pair Bonding

Professor Bales studies prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) and titi monkeys (Callicebus cupreus), because, like humans, both species form adult pair-bonds, and the males help care for infants.

Professor Karen Bales, an expert on social bonding in monogamous animals, has pair bonded with UC Davis.

Her education in biological anthropology took her to Louisiana, Tennessee and Maryland and her doctoral research to tropical rainforests in Brazil. But when the chance arose in 2004 to join the faculty here, Bales could think of no better place.

Bales said UC Davis offered an ideal combination for her research on the physiology, neurobiology and development of pair bonding in certain species of rodents and primates:

  • A Department of Psychology that places an emphasis on relationships, emotions, and understanding the whole animal or person, and
  • A National Primate Research Center with the country’s only active breeding colony of South American titi monkeys.

“When I started looking for a faculty position, UC Davis was perfect because I was able to bring my voles here and also study primates in UC Davis’ California National Primate Research Center,” she said.

Implications for human health

Prairie voles - parents and pupsBales studies prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) and titi monkeys (Callicebus cupreus), because, like humans, both species form adult pair-bonds, and the males help care for infants.

In particular, she is interested in the role of neuropeptides like oxytocin, which is sometimes called the “love hormone” for its role in intimacy and social bonding. Her research holds implications for human health as oxytocin is already being prescribed to treat autism, schizophrenia and social anxiety.

In a recent study on hormonal changes experienced by titi monkeys when separated from their mates, Bales and colleagues identified avenues for future research in human studies of attachment, grief and fatherhood. Their findings were reported in an article, “Challenges to the Pair Bond: Neural and Hormonal Effects of Separation and Reunion in a Monogamous Primate,” in the November 2016 issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“I can’t really imagine a job that is better than being able to think of a question that interests you and then getting the answer to it”.

Trained in anthropology and biology

As an undergraduate student in the University of New Orleans, Bales started as a cultural anthropology major, but quickly switched to biological anthropology. “I got really interested in the social structure and family systems in primates, how animals and people organize their relationships both on an individual level and a community level.”

For her master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Tennessee, she studied cooperative infant care in marmosets.

During her biology Ph.D. studies at the University of Maryland, Bales traveled to the Poça das Antas biological reserve in Brazil to study golden lion tamarins. The endangered tree monkeys have a largely monogamous mating system and cooperative breeding, where individuals in addition to the parents help care for the young.

Curious about the biological mechanisms of animal monogamy, Bales returned to a laboratory setting for postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Working with C. Sue Carter, a pioneering researcher of prairie vole monogamy, Bales studied the effects of pitocin, which is artificial oxytocin used in human labor induction, on long-term outcomes for offspring.

Teaching in labs and classrooms

As a UC Davis professor, Bales believes in giving undergraduates the chance to get research experience. “My research would not happen without students; they are very important to the way we run the lab.”

This past fall, she taught PSC 121, “Physiological Psychology,” exploring the relationship of brain structure and function to behavior, motivation, emotion, language, and learning in humans and other animals. She also taught a graduate student seminar.

During spring quarter 2017, Bales is team-teaching “Hormones and Behavior” with a colleague from the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. (The course is offered both as PSC 123 and NPB 152).

 Aman Dhillon, Science Writing Intern