Causes and predictors of nest mortality in a European rabbit population
We conducted a study on nest mortality of an individually marked population of European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus L., 1758) living in a field enclosure. Over 4 years, we determined maternities and quantified pup mortality during the nest period of 703 pups born in subterranean breeding burrows. Overall, pup mortality occurred in 42.7% of the litters, whereas 32.4% of all born pups were affected. Mortality was highest during the first few postnatal days. In about 50% of the cases, we managed to quantify different causes of mortality such as malnutrition, flooding, cooling of the pups, infanticide, or predation. The pups’ body mass on postnatal day 1, the thermal environment and the number of litter mates were the most important predictors of nest mortality. Litter mortality risk decreased with increasing soil temperature around the subterranean nests. A comparatively higher average pup body mass lowered the nest mortality risk of a litter, whereas this effect was more pronounced when soil temperatures were low. Furthermore, mortality was lowest in medium-sized litters, most probably due to the balance between the thermal benefits of huddling with litter siblings and the costs of having them due to the lower share of milk obtained by the individual pups in larger litters. In addition, nest mortality depended on characteristics of the mother; mortality was increased in litters of low-ranking females and of mothers with lower body mass. In conclusion, our study highlights multiple causes and the effects of different environmental and social factors on nest mortality of this small mammal.
KeywordsOryctolagus cuniculus Litter size Maternal characteristics Siblings Thermal environment
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