Oregon Zoo researchers stopped playing matchmaker and instead let an endangered species pick their own companions.
The results aren't just proving positive for the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits; they could lead to a breakthrough for a much bigger member of the animal kingdom.
The Oregon Zoo became the first in the world to breed the highly endangered rabbits in 2001. However, the minuscule bunnies were plagued with low birth rates and incompatibility among mates. Animals are typically paired based on estimates of genetic relatedness.
The dilemma prompted a community of animal-care professionals and scientists to consider whether allowing the animals to choose their own mates might improve reproductive success.
So in the spring of 2010, a rabbit "speed-dating" program was put together. The rabbits were housed in rows of neighboring open-air pens, alternating between male and female, thus giving each female a choice between two males.
"Females are the limiting factor in many breeding programs for mammals, because they tend to be the choosiest," said Meghan Martin, the Oregon Zoo research associate who led the study. "The female rabbits always chose one male over the other, and in most cases, one male was extremely preferred."
Each female's preference was judged by her behavior, whether she rubbed heads with a male through the fencing, chased him or ran parallel with him along the barrier.
Females were then paired with males from one of four categories: neighbor, non-neighbor, preferred and non-preferred.
Less than a month later, the researchers trained their eyes on the rabbit burrows, waiting to see which ones produced kits. As expected, the females that had been paired with neighbors and preferred males were more likely to have litters than those paired with non-neighbors and non-preferred males.
Now, Martin is in China attempting to find breeding success with the world's ambassador for endangered species, the panda bear.
"Giant pandas are notorious for their reluctance to breed in captivity," Martin said. "Applying the findings from our pygmy rabbit studies to this critically endangered species could be a key to increasing the panda population."
Martin's research is taking place at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve in Ya'an, China and is being conducted in collaboration with Portland State University, the Zoological Society of San Diego, and the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas.
Martin will expand on her pygmy rabbit study by taking male preference into account. She also plans to examine whether acoustic and hormonal cues, and personality traits such as shyness or boldness, can predict mate preference.
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