Mothers and offspring: The rabbit as a model system in the study of mammalian maternal behavior and sibling interactions

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
G. González-Mariscal, M. Caba, M. Martínez-Gómez, A. Bautista, R. Hudson
Hormones and Behavior
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This article is part of a Special Issue “Parental Care”. Jay Rosenblatt effectively promoted research on rabbit maternal behavior through his interaction with colleagues in Mexico. Here we review the activities of pregnant and lactating rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), their neuro-hormonal regulation, and the synchronization of behavior between mother and kits. Changing concentrations of estradiol, progesterone, and prolactin throughout gestation regulate nest-building (digging, straw-carrying, fur-pulling) and prime the mother’s brain to respond to the newborn. Nursing is the only mother–young contact throughout lactation. It happens once/day, inside the nest, with ca. 24 h periodicity, and lasts around 3 min. Periodicity and duration of nursing depend on a threshold of suckling as procedures reducing the amount of nipple stimulation interfere with the temporal aspects of nursing, though not with the doe’s maternal motivation. Synchronization between mother and kits, critical for nursing, relies on: a) the production of pheromonal cues which guide the young to the mother’s nipples for suckling; b) an endogenous circadian rhythm of anticipatory activity in the young, present since birth. Milk intake entrains the kits’ locomotor behavior, corticosterone secretion, and the activity of several brain structures. Sibling interactions within the huddle, largely determined by body mass at birth, are important for: a) maintaining body temperature; b) ensuring normal neuromotor and social development. Suckling maintains nursing behavior past the period of abundant milk production but abrupt and efficient weaning occurs in concurrently pregnant-lactating does by unknown factors. Conclusion: female rabbits have evolved a reproductive strategy largely dissociating maternal care from maternal presence, whose multifactorial regulation warrants future investigations.


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