Aspects of social behaviour and reproduction in the wild rabbit – Implications for rabbit breeding?




affiliative behavior, agonistic behavior, density effects, group stability, infanticide, sibling effects


Further knowledge on aspects of social behaviour in the wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), including the link to reproduction, could possibly point to new ways to improve housing and breeding conditions in rabbit farming. In this review, I present some results of our long-term study on a 2-hectare field enclosure population of wild rabbits (University of Bayreuth, Germany), exploring group-level and individual-level differences in agonistic behaviour of females and their potential associations with reproductive traits, including offspring survival. The frequency of agonistic behaviour in which females were involved, increased with increasing group size, and was lower in groups with a more heterogeneous age structure. At the individual level, reproducing females were involved in more agonistic interactions when groupmates gave birth and thus built their burrows and nests at around the same time, and higher-ranking mothers were particularly aggressive when other females approached close to their nursery burrows. Associations between females’ social environment and reproduction were evident, as the numbers of litters and offspring per female were lower at higher female densities, high-ranking females produced more offspring and had a lower offspring mortality than low-ranking ones, and cases of infanticide were lower in more stable groups, which we quantified by the more heterogeneous age structure of the females’ rank hierarchy in such groups. Furthermore, perinatal offspring mortality was increased in females with a delayed burrow and nest building activity, i.e. does that dug their nursery burrow and built their nest only during the last 24 h pre-partum, possibly driven by the more unfavourable social environment experienced by such females. Most importantly, our studies highlight the importance of the presence of litter siblings in improving an individual’s social environment, which resulted in an earlier onset of breeding in such females. Higher levels of positive social interactions with litter siblings were also associated with lower stress hormone (corticosterone) levels and with a better health status in terms of lower loads with an intestinal nematode. These findings on ameliorating effects of litter sibling presence in growing rabbits as well as in reproducing females may be a promising starting point worth further exploration in the context of group housing of domestic rabbits.


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Author Biography

Heiko Georg Rödel, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Laboratoire d’Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée


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