Ecology and Watership Down: Giving the People What They Want

People talk a lot about the allegory of Watership Down, but that’s too mainstream for me. I’m nothing if not a niche writer (get it?), so here are some of the ecological highlights from Watership Down. It’s what everyone wants. Or at least what I want. Time to tear down the “wall” between biology and literature.

Let’s start out at the home warren, shall we, as the primroses are beginning to die out on the downs. Cowslips, we are informed, are particularly difficult to find this time of year. Boom! Right off the bat we’ve got interspecific competition. Not to mention, the rabbits are preferentially browsing cowslips for their low levels of recalcitrant carbon. (For a certain branch of ecologists, competition represents the most fundamental driver of population size and community is competition. Mayhaps Mr. Richard Adams falls into this category as well.)

From all indications, the home warren is hovering right around its carrying capacity (k) with a low level of predation (D), high birth rate (B)–Fiver, for example, rabbits being unable to count over four, anything after four is called “fiver”– and the available resources about to give out. Hazel makes the right decision in following Fiver. Even if the humans weren’t coming with gas, ferrets, and tractors, still the rabbit population might expect to see a bit of a decline in future years.

So the rabbits strike out for a new land. Migration! Gene flow in the making!

The intrepid band encounters a series of borders in their early travels, specifically a river and a soybean field. These reveal possible edge effects (that is changes in ecosystem closer to edges as opposed to the core) both from natural and man-made landscape features. The soybean field in particular also reveals the difference between an agricultural field and a natural grassland. The rabbits note a distinct and rather unsettling smell. And the lack of cover from predators leads to Pipkin being attacked by a crow.

Then we encounter other warrens: reproductive isolation overcome to eventually lead to homogenization! No new species coming from this area, folks.

The first warren they stumble across is set up close to a farm which has led to a strange form of hunting, in which the farmer poaches the rabbits in return for keeping natural predators down. In response the rabbits have become sleek and strong. Here’s an example of human intervention in natural selection. The reproductive fitness of the rabbits is now dependent more on their ability to accept their fate and to observe the shining wires. They evolve in different ways than Hazel and his crew. (Of course the evolutionary changes may not show up yet depending on the rate of generation in the rabbits.) These rabbits have evolved art and poetry while losing their natural instincts to bolt. This is in many ways an interesting critique on the human species. We have also removed ourselves from the process of natural selection. We now must evolve either a sense of predestination or an ability to view our own pitfalls. The shining wire! The shining wire!

The second warren, Efrafa, is a very different story. Here we have behavioral changes as an overreaction to predation. These behavioral changes-feeding at unnatural times, burying feces -have led to overpopulation and indications of possible inbreeding. Without new genes to strengthen and diversify the young, rabbits are being born who, like Blackavar, have little chance of a successful life especially in the over-crowded warren.

And let’s look at General Woundwart: if that’s not a case of beneficial mutations I don’t know what is.

Thankfully in this case, however, brain triumphs over brawn and nature, red in tooth and claw, removes General Woundwart from the species list.

There’s quite a bit more ecology and evolution present in Watership Down than what I’ve written about, but this is a taste for now anyway. I have found it interesting and rather encouraging to think about. As I firmly believe, biology and literature are not such distinct categories as is generally thought. In my opinion it is an unWARRENted division!

Keep a weather eye out for more examples and send them my way when you find them!


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