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PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e48988. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048988. Epub 2012 Nov 13.

Contrasting effects of climate change on rabbit populations through reproduction.

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Estación Biológica de Doñana, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Sevilla, Spain.



Climate change is affecting many physical and biological processes worldwide. Anticipating its effects at the level of populations and species is imperative, especially for organisms of conservation or management concern. Previous studies have focused on estimating future species distributions and extinction probabilities directly from current climatic conditions within their geographical ranges. However, relationships between climate and population parameters may be so complex that to make these high-level predictions we need first to understand the underlying biological processes driving population size, as well as their individual response to climatic alterations. Therefore, the objective of this study is to investigate the influence that climate change may have on species population dynamics through altering breeding season.


We used a mechanistic model based on drivers of rabbit reproductive physiology together with demographic simulations to show how future climate-driven changes in breeding season result in contrasting rabbit population trends across Europe. In the Iberian Peninsula, where rabbits are a native species of high ecological and economic value, breeding seasons will shorten and become more variable leading to population declines, higher extinction risk, and lower resilience to perturbations. Whereas towards north-eastern countries, rabbit numbers are expected to increase through longer and more stable reproductive periods, which augment the probability of new rabbit invasions in those areas.


Our study reveals the type of mechanisms through which climate will cause alterations at the species level and emphasizes the need to focus on them in order to better foresee large-scale complex population trends. This is especially important in species like the European rabbit whose future responses may aggravate even further its dual keystone/pest problematic. Moreover, this approach allows us to predict not only distribution shifts but also future population status and growth, and to identify the demographic parameters on which to focus to mitigate global change effects.

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