Use of proximity loggers and network analysis to quantify social interactions in free-ranging wild rabbit populations
Context: Social structure of group-living animals has important implications for processes such as gene flow, information transfer, resource utilisation, and disease spread. However, due to the difficulties associated with measuring relationships among wild animals and deriving meaningful estimates of social structure from these interactions, quantifying sociality of evasive species can be challenging. Aims: Our aim was to quantify the pattern of social interactions among free-ranging European wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in a temperate region of Australia. Methods: We used proximity logging devices to collect data on the dyadic interactions among two populations of rabbits. We then applied recently developed social structure and network analytical techniques to infer estimates of sociality and contact networks from recorded interactions. Key results: We found large heterogeneities in the strength of association indices and network centrality measures within but not between populations. Network analytical techniques revealed clustering of rabbits into distinct social groups. Conclusions: Most associations within social groups were strong and highly stable over time whereas interactions between groups were rare and transient, indicating low levels of inter-group mixing. Despite the apparent differences in habitat quality between sites, the network characteristics were extremely similar between the two populations. Implications: Our results highlight the importance of heterogeneities in individual behaviour in determining the dynamics of directly transmitted diseases at the population level.
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