Bunny Love

Bunny Love

Rabbits breed like… well, rabbits. Don’t they? According to research by UEA biologist Diana Bell, the truth might be a little less exciting. While rabbits have amazing reproductive capacities, in practice a female only produces one to ten offspring per year. In some environments the species is even critically endangered.

It’s commonly assumed that rabbits breed with incredible frequency – in fact, many consider them to be an outright pest – but recent research by Zoologists at UEA has revealed that the claim might be somewhat exaggerated.

UEA is fortunate enough to have its own abundant population of rabbits on the campus grounds so, over the past thirty years, researchers in the School of Biological Sciences have studied them intensely.

UEA’s Diana Bell, a member of the IUCN’s Lagomorph Specialist Group, noted that ‘the annual number of emergent young per doe in our long-term study population has ranged from one to ten’ – this is significantly lower than the dozens of offspring that a female rabbit could in theory produce.

Rabbits have a number of biological traits that make them particularly fertile; they ovulate in response to copulation and there’s no gap in their fertility between pregnancies. As a result, they are physically capable of reproducing at a very fast rate for a large portion of their lifespan.

However, the European rabbit’s actual breeding behaviour varies hugely across different environments due to the effects of factors like temperature, diet, predator numbers and disease. While their natural breeding capacity should give them a huge survival advantage, there are several of the 45 species of rabbits and hares that are actually threatened with extinction.

Indeed even the European rabbit is now Red Listed as endangered in its ancestral home on the Iberian Peninsula and there have also been significant declines in the UK due to new diseases.

Research like this gives us a better understanding of the way biology, environment and ecology interact so we can do more to help struggling species survive. UEA is well-renowned for pioneering work in a huge range of related fields, as well as exceptional undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in Ecology, Biology and Environmental Sciences.

WHAT MYTHS WILL YOU BUST?

The Expert

Dr Diana Bell

Senior Lecturer
School of Biological Sciences
Dr Bell is a conservation biologist with eclectic research interests mainly at interdisciplinary boundaries. Her overseas research has been primarily aimed at helping to identify long-term management plans to minimise biodiversity loss in critically threatened grassland and forest refugial habitats in Mexico, the Indian sub-continent, S.E. Asia and islands of the Indian Ocean. Much of her current research concerns the roles of introduced pathogens and wildlife trade in biodiversity loss. Dr Bell's UK research has used the European wild rabbit as a model species to investigate interrelationships among population dynamics, behavioural ecology, reproduction, genetics, parasites/ disease and species/ecosystem conservation. Most of the latter research has involved a long-term (20+year), non-invasive study of a natural European wild rabbit population situated on the UEA campus.