Influence of habitat management on the abundance and diet of wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus algirus) populations in Mediterranean ecosystems

Abstract

During the last decades wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) populations have been progressively declining in the Iberian Peninsula as a result of several factors, namely habitat deterioration. Hence, habitat management has become one of the most commonly used management techniques to restore wild rabbit populations. To test the efficacy of some of these measures (creation of pastures, opening firebreaks) in rabbit populations, two managed (M1 and M2) and two control areas (C1 and C2) were selected in the Portuguese Southwest (SW) Coast. In each study area, the influence of habitat management was tested assessing temporal changes in rabbit abundance obtained from pellet counts and in rabbits’ diet through microhistological analysis of fecal pellets. Rabbit densities were higher in managed than in control areas (mean annual values: M1–1.08 pellets/m2; M2–1.60 pellets/m2; C1–0.69 pellets/m2; C2–0.40 pellets/m2). In general, Gramineae was the most consumed plant group throughout the year and in all study areas. In control areas, consumption of alternative species with low nutritive value (e.g., Cistus ladanifer) was observed, especially in summer. Our data suggest a positive influence of habitat management on rabbit populations since in managed areas individuals presented an overall higher abundance and a more nutritive diet. In addition, there was no evidence that sown species were consumed in detriment to naturally occurring grasses, suggesting that in Mediterranean semi-arid regions clearing vegetation inside the scrubland might be sufficient to improve habitat conditions for rabbits.

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Acknowledgments

This work was partially funded by the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e da Biodiversidade (ICNB, Portugal). We wish to thank the Director of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina for all the support given during field work. We are also grateful to F. Barreto Caldas, J. Honrado, and R. Silva from the Botanic Department of Porto University for help in plant identification, J. Paupério for help in diet analysis, M. Carretero and A. Múrias for helpful comments on the statistical analysis, and B. Cooke and R. Villafuerte for valuable comments on an early draft of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Catarina Ferreira.

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Communicated by: C. Gortázar

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Ferreira, C., Alves, P.C. Influence of habitat management on the abundance and diet of wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus algirus) populations in Mediterranean ecosystems. Eur J Wildl Res 55, 487–496 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10344-009-0257-4

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Keywords

  • Oryctolagus cuniculus algirus
  • Microhistological analysis
  • Relative abundance
  • Habitat management
  • South Portugal