, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 113-121

Social structures, genetic structures and dispersal strategies in Australian rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) populations

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In this study, the pattern of movement of young male and female rabbits and the genetic structures present in adult male and female populations in four habitats was examined. The level of philopatry in young animals was found to vary between 18–90% for males and 32–95% for females in different populations. It was skewed, with more males dispersing than females in some but not all populations. Analysis of allozyme data using spatial autocorrelation showed that adult females from the same social group, unlike males, were significantly related in four of the five populations studied. Changes in genetic structure and rate of dispersal were measured before and during the recovery of a population that was artificially reduced in size. There were changes in the rate and distance of dispersal with density and sex. Subadults of both sexes moved further in the first year post crash (low density) than in the following years. While the level of dispersal for females was lower than that of the males for the first 3 years, thereafter (high density) both sexes showed similar, low levels of dispersal (20%). The density at which young animals switch behaviour between dispersal and philopatry differed for males and females. The level of genetic structuring in adult females was high in the precrash population, reduced in the first year post crash and undetectable in the second year. Dispersal behaviour of rabbits both affects the genetic structure of the population and changes with conditions. Over a wide range of levels of philopatry, genetic structuring is present in the adult female , but not the male population. Consequently, though genetic structuring is present, it does not lead to inbreeding. More long-distance movements are found in low-density populations, even though vacant warrens are available near birth warrens. The distances moved decreased as density increased. Calculation of the effective population size (N e) shows that changes in dispersal distance offset changes in density, so that N e remains constant.

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