Ok - so there I was, I had a testable theory "Rabbits are naive to python predation", a reliable method to test fear response (GUD), some cash from the Everglades Foundation to buy supplies, and a group of gung-ho unsuspecting undergraduates ready and willing to help me. What could go wrong? Cats, cats could go wrong...and raccoons...and rain...
The plan was to test how rabbits respond to predator cues by creating artificial foraging patches. We would place a food reward (domestic rabbit food) in a tray of sand, the rabbits would be able to smell the food but would need to put some effort into getting at it. As rabbits continued to forage at the tray there would be a diminishing rate of return on effort - at some point the rabbits would decide they were no longer benefiting from foraging at the tray and "give up", the amount of food left in a tray when animals give up is called the "Giving Up Density "or GUD. Previous research has shown that adding predator odor near the trays reduces the GUD, meaning animals give up sooner when predators are present. It is a simple and elegant way to understand how prey species perceive risk in their environment, sometimes called a "landscape of fear".
After a lengthy permitting process - people get very nervous about putting food out for wildlife - I got permission to conduct the study in the Natural Areas Teaching Lab (NATL), a 60 acre forest located on the UF campus in Gainesville, Florida. I sent the undergraduates out with trays, sand, and pellets and told them to come back with some sweet sweet results - not so fast.
Turns out the GUD stations are the perfect homes for feral cats