What’s the lynx with rabbit poo?

‘How to discuss lynx using a tenuous link between Portuguese and UK rabbit data sets’

This was scientifically translated to ‘Rabbit haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis: Disease dynamics and mortality in European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus in southern Portugal and the United Kingdom respectively’ for my undergraduate dissertation. Clearly there is a discrepancy in the titles, however as many fresh-faced undergraduate will learn, what you dream to achieve during your dissertation is not always the reality.

My research interest lies in carnivore conservation, specifically felids, therefore I leapt at the opportunity to delve into this for my undergraduate dissertation. Following numerous emails to research organisations across Europe I was offered a voluntary summer field position with Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (League for Protection of Nature; LPN) in Portugal.

LPN project LinceAbutre aimed to conserve the Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus and Eurasian black vulture Aegypius monachus. Photo by Sophie May Watts
LPN project Lince|Abutre aimed to conserve the Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus and Eurasian black vulture Aegypius monachus. Photo by Sophie May Watts.

In June 2014 I embarked on my biggest adventure to date, I spent six solo weeks in Portugal and had the time of my life. I planned the trip to include a week’s acclimatization and would highly recommend this to any researcher if time and finances allow. During this week I learnt to surf (badly), enjoyed street parties, soaked up the Lisbon culture and fell asleep on an open top tour bus.

A beginner’s attempt at surfing. Photo by Sophie May Watts.
A beginner’s attempt at surfing. Photo by Sophie May Watts.

The team at LPN were extremely friendly and accommodating by speaking in English when possible and ensuring I was kept busy preparing for fieldwork and writing a literature review as my ever evolving project took shape. There were no Iberian lynx in Portugal at the time so I wanted to monitor the rabbit population, a prerequisite for reintroduction. To do this I joined field biologists to counts latrines along line transects, that is correct, I went to Portugal to hunt for rabbit poo. Joking aside, we spend five days a week walking in the blazing Portuguese sun locating and recording latrines. Field work was tiring at times, starts were early to avoid walking at mid-day and the terrain was rugged and steep in places, however bee-eaters Meropidae and hoopoes Upupa epops provided a joyous soundtrack. Latrine counts were interspersed with bird of prey censuses and of course weekends (which brought more surfing).  As all good things must end so did my trip, I left with experience, great friends and fond memories of a wonderful country.

Rabbit pastures with electric fence to keep out (in theory) wild boar Sus scrofa and red deer Cervus elaphus. Photo by Nuno Curado.
Rabbit pastures with electric fence to keep out (in theory) wild boar Sus scrofa and red deer Cervus elaphus. Photo by Nuno Curado.

Back in the UK it I looked at my data and realised I should have listened to my supervisor when he said ‘Work out how to analyse your data before you collect it’. During 2012 Portugal suffered an outbreak of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), a contagious and fatal viral disease, which caused the population to plummet and data became limited. In light of this I compared the RHD outbreak in Portugal to the 1950’s arrival of myxomatosis in the UK, in part because it made an interesting question and in part to reach that pesky word count. To do this I teamed up with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) where I was completing a placement in the GIS and Predation departments. I was able to utilise a long-term national database of the number of rabbits shot on shooting estates each year as a proxy for population trends.

The results of my study showed a significant decline in rabbit numbers following disease outbreaks in the UK and Portugal, this was irrespective of regional differences and could be associated with the high mortality rate of both diseases. Additionally, myxomatosis displayed density dependence, meaning there was an increased individual death rate as population density rose. RHD and myxomatosis were both able to evolve and advance rapidly, aided by human intervention and movement. Recovery in the UK took approximately 30 years in the form of a regime shift, however Portuguese recovery was not assessed due to low data availability. Ongoing monitoring and future analyses would be beneficial to optimise conservation measures and here comes the link; the rabbit population is vital since lynx reintroductions are currently ongoing.

My dissertation may not have been as closely related to lynx as I hoped for initially, but I learnt that herbivore and plant research was equally important if not more so in carnivore conservation. Without plants there would be no herbivores, without which there would be no carnivores. I hope to work on a felid project one day and am fully aware that it will involve camera trapping, scat analysis and plant surveys. In spite of this I am enthusiastic to progress in this direction. Now, I had better get back to that revision.


About Sophie May Watts 5 Articles
Sophie has graduated from the University of Southampton with a first class in BSc (Hons) Biology and is now studying MSc Wildlife Management and Conservation at the University of Reading. Her animal husbandry experience extends from domestic to big cats with everything in between and she has worked in the field with the Scottish Beaver Trial, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Liga para a Protecção da Natureza. As an aspiring wildlife conservation biologist Sophie is continually seeking opportunities to expand her knowledge and skill base, particularly focusing on mammalian carnivores.
Contact: Website

1 Comment on What’s the lynx with rabbit poo?

  1. Lovely post Sophie! Kudos on finding great ways to see joy and intrigue in the challenging life of a researcher! It’s tough work, but essential to our collective understanding of important relationships. I like your outlook and the fun way that you discovered a scientists life is never what’s expected, as a good researcher is open and willing to find results and new questions that lead them in directions they hadn’t anticipated! Thanks for showing us through your eyes, the flexibility and passion for information that is paramount to a good science-based search for understanding.

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