Dying like rabbits: general determinants of spatio-temporal variability in survival

Authors

  • Zulima Tablado,

    Corresponding author
    1. Departamento Biología de la Conservación, Estación Biológica de Doñana (CSIC), Avda Américo Vespucio s/n, 41092 Sevilla, Spain
    2. Université de Savoie, CNRS-UMR 5553 Laboratoire d’Ecologie Alpine, 73376 Le Bourget du Lac, France
      Correspondence author. E-mail: zutal@ebd.csic.es
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  • Eloy Revilla,

    1. Departamento Biología de la Conservación, Estación Biológica de Doñana (CSIC), Avda Américo Vespucio s/n, 41092 Sevilla, Spain
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  • Francisco Palomares

    1. Departamento Biología de la Conservación, Estación Biológica de Doñana (CSIC), Avda Américo Vespucio s/n, 41092 Sevilla, Spain
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Correspondence author. E-mail: zutal@ebd.csic.es

Summary

1. Identifying general patterns of how and why survival rates vary across space and time is necessary to truly understand population dynamics of a species. However, this is not an easy task given the complexity and interactions of processes involved, and the interpopulation differences in main survival determinants.

2. Here, using European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) as a model and information from local studies, we investigated whether we could make inferences about trends and drivers of survival of a species that are generalizable to large spatio-temporal scales. To do this, we first focused on overall survival and then examined cause-specific mortalities, mainly predation and diseases, which may lead to those patterns.

3. Our results show that within the large-scale variability in rabbit survival, there exist general patterns that are explained by the integration of factors previously known to be important at the local level (i.e. age, climate, diseases, predation or density dependence). We found that both inter- and intrastudy survival rates increased in magnitude and decreased in variability as rabbits grow old, although this tendency was less pronounced in populations with epidemic diseases. Some causes leading to these higher mortalities in young rabbits could be the stronger effect of rainfall at those ages, as well as, other death sources like malnutrition or infanticide.

4. Predation is also greater for newborns and juveniles, especially in population without diseases. Apart from the effect of diseases, predation patterns also depended on factors, such as, density, season, and type and density of predators. Finally, we observed that infectious diseases also showed general relationships with climate, breeding (i.e. new susceptible rabbits) and age, although the association type varied between myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

5. In conclusion, large-scale patterns of spatio-temporal variability in rabbit survival emerge from the combination of different factors that interrelate both directly and through density dependence. This highlights the importance of performing more comprehensive studies to reveal combined effects and complex relationships that help us to better understand the mechanisms underlying population dynamics.

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