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Survivor: the hare-raising episode

June 15, 2007|From the Associated Press

SPOKANE, WASH. — The only surviving pair of endangered pygmy rabbits to have been released in a program to increase their numbers in the wild have dodged coyotes, badgers, hawks and owls -- and found time for love.

Scientists announced Thursday that the rabbits had bred.

"We were worried. It took them a little while, but they did what rabbits do best," Rodney D. Sayler, a Washington State University conservation biologist, said from Pullman.

The rabbits, slightly larger than a hand, eat sagebrush and are the only rabbits in the United States that dig their own burrows.

No Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are known to be left in the wild. Predators nearly wiped out the 20 captive-reared rabbits released in March in central Washington.

Two males that wandered outside the study area were recovered and returned to the captive breeding program, leaving only an adult male and female in the wild as of June 1.

But spirits were buoyed last week when doctoral student Len Zeoli found the female digging a burrow and lining it with grass, an indication she was preparing to give birth.

Later, Zeoli spotted a juvenile rabbit near another burrow from what is believed to be a second litter of babies, called kits, Sayler said.

The male, which WSU students named Utapau after a planet in the "Star Wars" movies, and Impala, the female, could breed again this year, Sayler said, noting that pairs can mate two or three times a season. Each litter produces four to six kits.

It was not known whether the two litters came from the same female, or if one was the offspring of another female that was later killed by predators, he said.

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