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Absentee Mothering – Not So Absent? Responses of European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) Mothers to Pup Distress Calls



Heiko G. Rödel, Laboratoire d'Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée E.A. 4443 (LEEC), Université Paris 13, Sorbonne Paris Cité, 99 Avenue J.B. Clément, F-93430 Villetaneuse, France.



Longer-range acoustic parent-offspring communication is widespread, but might be absent in species in which young are hidden in burrows during the mother's absence. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is such a species, with unusually limited maternal care largely restricted to a short daily nursing bout. Based, however, on evidence of frequent infanticide in this species, we hypothesize that rabbits possess a mechanism promoting a maternal response to pup distress calls. We conducted playback experiments with distress calls of pre-weaning pups played next to the breeding burrows of mothers in a field enclosure (i.e. next to the burrows where mothers give birth and raise their young). Calls were played shortly after pups were born (T1) when infanticide risk is maximal, and shortly before the pups start dispersing from the breeding burrow (T2). A high proportion of mothers (60.6%) responded to pup calls by rapidly returning to their breeding burrow and 40% of them investigated the area around the entrance. Return responses to the playback of pup calls did not differ between mothers during T1 and T2. Thus, our results confirm that rabbit mothers respond rapidly to pup distress calls and that this responsiveness may adaptively serve to repel potentially infanticidal females.

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