Importance of latrine communication in European rabbits shifts along a rural–to–urban gradient

Rabbits set up and use toilets differently according to how
urban or rural their environment is

Madlen Ziege,corresponding author David Bierbach, Svenja Bischoff, Anna-Lena Brandt, Mareike Brix, Bastian Greshake, Stefan Merker, Sandra Wenninger, Torsten Wronski, and Martin Plath

Source: BMC Ecol. 2016; 16: 29. Published online 2016 Jun 14. doi:  10.1186/s12898-016-0083-PMCID: PMC4908761

A study of rural and urban rabbits in and near Frankfurt, Germany, has found that rural rabbits have a higher proportion of latrines near their burrows, whereas suburban and urban rabbits have a higher proportion of latrines at the periphery of their territories. The study looked at rabbits in nine urban green spaces in central Frankfurt, of between 1 hectare and 4.9 hectares in size, and separated from one another by traffic. They also studied rabbits in four suburban parks at the outskirts of  Frankfurt, of between 5.5 hectares and 30.2 hectares, and rabbits in two rural locations near Frankfurt, each of 36 hectares.

Rabbits and other mammals often communicate through latrines where they excrete dry pellets smeared with secretions from anal and submandibular glands. Latrines near the burrow can pass on information about the individual rabbit to others within the social group, helping to keep the group together. Latrines at the periphery of their territory provide information to potential rabbit intruders from other social groups. Urban rabbits tend to form smaller social groups than rural rabbits, and urban rabbit territories are smaller. Rabbit population densities tend to be higher in urban areas, so there is more competition for territory. There were more paw scrapings at urban peripheral latrines. Paw scraping is a way that males mark their territory. Urban rabbits tend to be active for longer periods in the day than are rural rabbits, so have more time for marking. Urban and suburban rabbits are likely to flee at closer distances, and spend less time avoiding predators. There may be a higher density of predators, like foxes and cats, in urban areas, but predators may more food from sources other than rabbits, so risks from predators may be lower for urban rabbits. If risks from predators are greater in rural areas, this means that using peripheral latrines away from the burrow is riskier for rural rabbits than for urban rabbits.

Urban and suburban rabbits have more access to trees and shrubs than do rural rabbits, because a lot of woody vegetation has been cleared for agriculture in rural areas. As rabbits prefer shrubs and trees when they create burrows, this affects burrow formation.  Rabbits like to set up latrines in open areas, often high places, near woody vegetation, which allows them to retreat quickly if a predator appears.

Rabbits are suffering a decline in population density in rural Europe, though rabbit population densities can be high in urban and in suburban areas. This rural decline is probably caused by habitat destruction, with safe places for building burrows disappearing as agricultural production becomes intensified. Rabbits in urban areas may suffer more from intense competition with other rabbits than do rabbits in rural locations. Surburban sites have less habitat destruction than rural sites, and offer more space with fewer sealed surfaces where rabbits cannot dig than urban areas. Rabbits in suburban areas also appear to face less competition from other rabbits than do rabbits in urban areas. This finding of a rural-to-urban gradient in rabbit latrine habits indicates that suburban sites may therefore provide the best environment for rabbits.