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Reproduction and Behavior in Captive Idaho and Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits. Becky Elias, Rod Sayler, Lisa Shipley Washington State University. Washington State University Oregon Zoo Northwest Trek Animal Park Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Distribution of Pygmy Rabbits .

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Reproduction and behavior in captive idaho and columbia basin pygmy rabbits l.jpg

Reproduction and Behavior in Captive Idaho and Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits

Becky Elias, Rod Sayler,

Lisa Shipley

Washington State University


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Distribution of Pygmy Rabbits Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Background Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Smallest rabbit in North America

  • Sagebrush foragers

  • Dig their own burrow

  • Columbia Basin (CB) pygmy rabbits listed as endangered


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Background Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Decline of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit linked to:

    • Loss and fragmentation of deep soil sagebrush-steppe habitat

    • Predation

    • Disease

    • Cattle grazing

    • Inbreeding depression


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Timeline Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 1995 – Recovery plan adopted for Columbia Basin (CB) pygmy rabbits

  • 2001 – Population crash results in an emergency action plan and an emergency listing as endangered. Oregon Zoo (OZ) develops captive breeding protocol using Idaho (ID) pygmy rabbits, and remaining CB rabbits are brought into captivity

  • 2002 – Captive breeding of CB pygmy rabbits begins at OZ, Washington State University (WSU), and Northwest Trek (NWT)

  • 2003 – CB pygmy rabbits achieve federal listing as endangered. Beginning of intercross pairings between CB and ID pygmy rabbits


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Outline Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Breeding behavior

  • Reproductive success

  • Nest building

  • Gestation, birth, and lactation

  • Weights & Diet

  • Mortality & survival

  • Management implications


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Breeding Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Wilde (1978) and Fisher (1979)

  • Breed mid-February to mid-May

  • Induced ovulators

  • Gestation period of 39 days

  • Up to three litters a year

  • Average litter size of 6 kits

  • No evidence on kits in burrows; hide at base of sagebrush plants


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Diet Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 2001 – 2002: Lab Diet (high fiber) /Bunny Basics (timothy hay mix)

  • 2004 (at WSU only): Purina breeder’s diet (high protein)


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Breeding Pens Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Large breeding pen Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Data Collection Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Breeding & Maternal Behaviors

    • Digital video recorder

    • Bullet cameras and day/night cameras

    • Pens open for ~ three days

    • Recorded chasing, copulation, nest-building, birth, and lactation

  • Reproductive Success

    • Female counted as pregnant when she built a natal nest

    • All kits found, no matter what age, used for reproductive success


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Results Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Breeding Behavior Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Male or female initiated chases

  • Lasted seconds to several minutes

  • Copulation while chasing or female stopped and allowed male to mount

  • Brief copulation


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Breeding Behavior Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Reproductive Success of Females Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • ID significantly higher than CB on all categories


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Reproductive Success of Males Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • ID significantly higher than CB on all except siring litters (small sample size?)


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Reproductive Success Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • ID and Cross significantly higher than CB


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Why is CB reproduction low? Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Problem with males, females, or both?

  • Males: problem with copulation?

  • Females: physiological - ovulation, behavior – aggression before successful copulation?

  • Hybrid studies


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Possible Answers Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Captivity

    • Problems breeding in captivity

  • Behavior

    • Sending/receiving proper behavioral cues

  • Weights

    • Underweight animals do not produce effectively

    • CB males have produced better since the introduction of the higher protein diet

  • Potential Inbreeding Depression

    • Decreased mating activity

    • Longer time before first litter

    • Increased litter failure

    • Low sperm count/failed ovulation


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Gestation, Birth, and Lactation Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Nest Building Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 13 days post-conception

  • Dig separate burrow; 16.5 – 35.5 cm

  • Use hay to make nest

  • Pluck fur from abdomen and line nest shortly before birth


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Gestation Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Gestation period

    • CB: 22.6 days (n=2)ID: 24.0 days (n=9) p=0.03

    • Cause of difference

      • CB litters born premature

      • Genetic drift & non-adaptive variation; adaptive variation; inbreeding depression


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Birth Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 2 morning, 4 afternoon, 3 night

  • Female plucked fur from her abdomen, cleaning, and opening burrow

  • At burrow entrance

  • 14.8 minutes

  • Covers burrow entrance


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Kits Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Eyes closed

  • Little fur

  • Gray to black skin

  • Pink bellies

  • ~15 grams


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Lactation Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Open once or twice a day to nurse

  • Kits come to the surface to nurse, with female sitting at the burrow entrance

  • 10.6 minutes

  • Recovers burrow

  • Night (6pm-11pm)

  • Morning (5am-9am)


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Lactation Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • No apparent correlation between number of nursings per day and litter size, time of year, or health of litter


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  • Emerge 15 days after Basin Pygmy Rabbits birth

  • Female doesn’t cover burrow

  • Sporadic nursing for several weeks

  • CB: 3.7 kits Cross: 4.1 kits ID: 3.5 kits

  • 2 – 6 kits/ litter

  • Max litters/year:

    • 3 in small pens, 4 in our large pen


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CB: March 5 Basin Pygmy Rabbitsth and May 8th

ID: *March 1st and May 25th

Cross: February 21st and May 23rd

Breeding Season

Earliest & Latest successful copulation


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Kit Mortality Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Adult Mortality Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Kit Weights Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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Adult Weights Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • CB males and females same weight as ID before breeding season

  • CB males (-32g) and females (-24g) lost weight.ID males (+11g) and females (+27g) gained weight

  • New data: both males and females fed the higher protein diet, gained weight (19g for males, and 17g for females)


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Large pen weights Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • At 26 weeks (near adult weight), animals in the large pen weigh much more than animals in the small pens

  • Males

    • Large pen: 523g

    • Small pen: 424g

  • Females

    • Large pen: 590g

    • Small pen: 431g


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Captive Population Growth: first 3 years Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Growth rate of the CB population was 1.2 during the first 3 years of the study

  • Projectedpopulation: 60 CB rabbits in 5 years of captive breeding

  • 10.4% chance of population increasing to 100 and 0.1% chance of crashing to 5


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Adult Survival Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 2001: 88%

  • 2002: 56%

  • 2003: 63%

  • 2004: 43%

  • All years: 63%


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Kit Survival Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • 2001: 80%

  • 2002: 47%

  • 2003: 59%

  • 2004: 23%

  • All years: 52%


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Conclusions Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • Inbreeding

  • Low reproductive performance

  • Health problems

  • Diet

  • Animals weigh more on a high protein diet

  • Possibly better reproduction

  • Population growth

  • Mediocre at best – long-term viability questionable

  • Success in any given year is unpredictable


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Management Implications Basin Pygmy Rabbits

  • NO Columbia Basin rabbits have been found in the wild since 2001 – may be extinct

    • Must control disease

    • Explore reproductive limitations and potential

    • Increase genetic diversity

    • Intercross rabbits to maintain unique CB alleles


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QUESTIONS? Basin Pygmy Rabbits


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