Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

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

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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR03059
Submitted: 8 July 2003  Accepted: 20 April 2006   Published: 27 June 2006


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.


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