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Abstract

The recognition of predator odours is a well-known mechanism in many prey species which may lead to various behavioural and physiological responses. This has been shown for many mammal species under laboratory conditions, but efforts to validate the results in the field often have led to inconclusive results. We investigated the behavioural reactions and the physiological stress response of European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to the odour of a mammalian predator (red fox, Vulpes vulpes) under semi-natural conditions. The study was conducted on a rabbit population living in an outdoor enclosure of 2 ha. We compared the rates of vigilance and exploration, the time allocated to self-directed behaviours, the home range sizes and the physiological responses of an experimental and a control group. Only animals from the experimental group were confronted with fox faeces. These animals increased their vigilance rate whereas the control animals did not respond. The increase did not differ between adult and subadult individuals. Furthermore, the experimental animals frequently approached the odour of the predator which might indicate an increase in investigative behaviour. Home-range size, feeding and other self-directed behaviours did not change in response to fox odour. Moreover, the animals of the experimental and the control group did not differ in serum corticosterone concentrations (measured after adrenocorticotrophic hormone challenge) that we determined in the beginning and in the end of the experiment. We suggest that the observed behavioural responses represent a low-cost strategy for lowering the individual risk of predation.