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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI:

Hare today, gone tomorrow: the role of interspecific competition in shaping riverine rabbit occurrence

Zoë Woodgate*, Greg Distiller, M. Justin O’Riain

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Effective conservation, particularly of threatened species, requires an understanding of both abiotic and biotic drivers of distribution. In the case of one of Africa's most endangered mammals, the riverine rabbit Bunolagus monticularis, only environmental covariates of presence have been used to provide coarse predictions of their distribution. Two potential competitors, namely scrub hare Lepus saxatilis and cape hare Lepus capensis, have significant (>90%) range overlap with the riverine rabbit, yet little is known about how these species interact. We used multi-species occupancy models, which model co-occurrence as a function of environmental variables, to assess the spatial response of riverine rabbits to both species of hare in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, South Africa. We also examined temporal overlap between riverine rabbits and hares. Camera trapping data were collected from 150 camera traps distributed in clusters of 5 cameras at 30 independent sites, covering 223.24 km2. Contrary to prior studies, we found that riverine rabbits were not restricted to riparian habitat, and that their occurrence was conditional on hare absence and negatively affected by terrain ruggedness. Whilst hare occurrence was independent of terrain ruggedness, it was negatively affected by rabbit presence. Activity patterns revealed high temporal overlap between hares and rabbits (Δ = 0.828, CI = 0.745–0.940), however neither species co-occurred at any given site. Our results suggest that conservation management has greatly underestimated the importance of competition with other lagomorphs in understanding riverine rabbit occurrence.