Natal dispersal and genetic structure in a population of the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)


  • This work is part of a fong-term study of the behaviouraf ecology and population genetics of a colony of wild rabbits under the supervision of Dr Diana Bell and Professor Codfrey Hewitt. N. J. Webb was the research student and then postdoctoral assistant on the project. Kamal M Ibrahim is a postdoctoral reseprdler with Professor Hewitt's group. DNA fingerprinting lor rabbits was developed in association with VrTeny Burke's p u p at Leicester University.

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A combination of behavioural observation, DNA fingerprinting, and allozyme analysis were used to examine natal dispersal in a wild rabbit population. Rabbits lived in territorial, warren based social groups. Over a 6-year period, significantly more male than female rabbits moved to a new social group before the start of their first breeding season. This pattern of female philopatry and male dispersal was reflected in the genetic structure of the population. DNA fingerprint band-sharing coefficients were significantly higher for females within the same group than for females between groups, while this was not the case for males. Wrighfs inbreeding coefficients were calculated from fingerprint band-sharing values and compared to those obtained from allozyme data. There was little correlation between the relative magnitudes of the F-statistics calculated using the two techniques for comparisons between different social groups. In contrast, two alternative methods for calculating FST from DNA fingerprints gave reasonably concordant values although those based on band-sharing were consistently lower than those calculated by an ‘allele’ frequency approach. A negative FIS value was obtained from allozyme data. Such excess heterozygosity within social groups is expected even under random mating given the social structure and sex-biased dispersal but it is argued that the possibility of behavioural avoidance of inbreeding should not be discounted in this species. Estimates of genetic differentiation obtained from allozyme and DNA fingerprint data agreed closely with reported estimates for the yellow-bellied marmot, a species with a very similar social structure to the European rabbit.