Background: In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the genetic determination of environmental variance. In the case of litter size, environmental variance can be related to the capacity of animals to adapt to new environmental conditions, which can improve animal welfare.
Results: We developed a ten-generation divergent selection experiment on environmental variance. We selected one line of rabbits for litter size homogeneity and one line for litter size heterogeneity by measuring intra-doe phenotypic variance. We proved that environmental variance of litter size is genetically determined and can be modified by selection. Response to selection was 4.5% of the original environmental variance per generation. Litter size was consistently higher in the Low line than in the High line during the entire experiment.
Conclusions: We conclude that environmental variance of litter size is genetically determined based on the results of our divergent selection experiment. This has implications for animal welfare, since animals that cope better with their environment have better welfare than more sensitive animals. We also conclude that selection for reduced environmental variance of litter size does not depress litter size.