Sociality, time and space in a sparse population of rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

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Abstract

This 10-year study describes a sparse population of rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) living in small, semi-isolated groups on river flats with some scrub in an otherwise forested valley. The rabbits lived above ground in the scrub by day and fed in the open at night. They bred in isolated ‘stops’ dug in the shingle often far from suitable grazing for the young. Many stops collapsed, killing the young. Home ranges were recorded by radio telemetry. Bucks had larger ranges than does and spent less time in the scrub. Adults of both sexes were sedentary for life. Some bucks travelled > 500 m at night. Most ranges were too large to be defended strictly; night feeding grounds were often communal. In the evening, adult rabbits spent 44% of the time feeding and 33% inactive. Social interactions were frequent. At all seasons, in the evening most adult rabbits were seen singly or as pairs. Pairs seldom remained intact for > 12 months even when both partners were alive. The buck of the pair was usually older than the doe because bucks outlived does. The adult survival rate was about 0.80 for bucks, 0.55 for does. Four bucks lived for > 7 years. Few young survived for long after leaving the nest; many were killed by predators. Dungheaps, used for 60% of the droppings, were concentrated near the scrub where rabbits congregated in the evening. The behaviour of these rabbits differed in many ways from that of rabbits in enclosures or at higher density in the wild.

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