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Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Temporal dynamics of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus infection in a low-density population of wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in New Zealand

J. Henning A D , D. U. Pfeiffer B , P. R. Davies A , J. Meers C and R. S. Morris A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A EpiCentre, Massey University, Palmerston North, PO Box 11-222, New Zealand.

B Royal Veterinary College, North Mymms, Hertfordshire AL9 7TA, UK.

C University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Present address: School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia. Email: J.Henning@uq.edu.au

Wildlife Research 33(4) 293-303 https://doi.org/10.1071/WR03059
Submitted: 8 July 2003  Accepted: 20 April 2006   Published: 27 June 2006

Abstract

A longitudinal capture–mark–recapture study was conducted to determine the temporal dynamics of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) in a European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) population of low to moderate density on sand-hill country in the lower North Island of New Zealand. A combination of sampling (trapping and radio-tracking) and diagnostic (cELISA, PCR and isotype ELISA) methods was employed to obtain data weekly from May 1998 until June 2001. Although rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) infection was detected in the study population in all 3 years, disease epidemics were evident only in the late summer or autumn months in 1999 and 2001. Overall, 20% of 385 samples obtained from adult animals older than 11 weeks were seropositive. An RHD outbreak in 1999 contributed to an estimated population decline of 26%. A second RHD epidemic in February 2001 was associated with a population decline of 52% over the subsequent month. Following the outbreaks, the seroprevalence in adult survivors was between 40% and 50%. During 2000, no deaths from RHDV were confirmed and mortalities were predominantly attributed to predation. Influx of seronegative immigrants was greatest in the 1999 and 2001 breeding seasons, and preceded the RHD epidemics in those years. Our data suggest that RHD epidemics require the population immunity level to fall below a threshold where propagation of infection can be maintained through the population.


Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge Robin Chrystall and George Robinson, who allowed us to conduct this study on their property. We thank Rex Munn, George Robinson and Phillip Thompson from the Manawatu–Wanganui Regional Council (Horizons Manawatu–Wanganui) for their comprehensive help in relation to all rabbit issues, including night counts, rabbit shooting and building a rabbit fence. We are indebted to Dugald Hall, who conducted many of the PCRs. We are grateful to Solis Norton and Sonja Kay for their help with radio-tracking and Dr Cord Heuer’s help with the statistical analysis. This research was supported financially by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, NZ; the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University; and by the German Academic Exchange Service. All field work involving live animals was approved by the Massey University Animal Ethics Committee.


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