Timing and severity of immunizing diseases in rabbits is controlled by seasonal matching of host and pathogen dynamics.
Infectious diseases can exert a strong influence on the dynamics of host populations, but it remains unclear why such disease-mediated control only occurs under particular environmental conditions. We used 16 years of detailed field data on invasive European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Australia, linked to individual-based stochastic models and Bayesian approximations, to test whether (i) mortality associated with rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) is driven primarily by seasonal matches/mismatches between demographic rates and epidemiological dynamics and (ii) delayed infection (arising from insusceptibility and maternal antibodies in juveniles) are important factors in determining disease severity and local population persistence of rabbits. We found that both the timing of reproduction and exposure to viruses drove recurrent seasonal epidemics of RHD. Protection conferred by insusceptibility and maternal antibodies controlled seasonal disease outbreaks by delaying infection; this could have also allowed escape from disease. The persistence of local populations was a stochastic outcome of recovery rates from both RHD and myxomatosis. If susceptibility to RHD is delayed, myxomatosis will have a pronounced effect on population extirpation when the two viruses coexist. This has important implications for wildlife management, because it is likely that such seasonal interplay and disease dynamics has a strong effect on long-term population viability for many species.