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Oct. 09, 2012

The European Rabbit: Friend or Foe?

by Kara Rogers

Click to enlarge images
Watership Down is a classic novel, but as I read it again, and for the first time in my adult life, I find that I have mixed feelings about Hazel, Bigwig, and the other fugitive rabbits of the Sandleford warren. Rabbits, to me at least, are the pet rabbit at school, the Easter Bunny, and the Velveteen Rabbit. They are Brer Rabbit, the jackalope, and the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) -- the species featured in Richard Adams's 1972 novel, and one of the world's most ubiquitous invasive species and one that ironically is threatened in its native habitat.
 
The European rabbit is native to the western Mediterranean and to northwestern Africa but has been introduced to every other region of the world, with the exception of Antarctica. Its impact on native flora and fauna has been studied extensively in Australia, where it arrived in 1788 and was released into the wild in 1859. It is believed to have contributed to the extinction of a number of Australia's small mammals, and its competition with the native greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis) for food and burrows has placed that animal -- an increasingly popular species in Australia -- in danger of extinction. In areas where it is invasive, the European rabbit also is a major agricultural pest, causing significant damage particularly to barley, oats, and wheat.
 
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But for as problematic as the European rabbit is in the places where it has been introduced, within its native range its numbers have declined significantly. In Doñana National Park, in southwestern Spain, for example, some populations were reported in 2000 to have dropped by 95 percent since the 1950s. The declines came as a result of the arrival of the highly fatal viral diseases myxomatosis, which was introduced in France in 1952, and rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which appeared on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the late 1980s. The species' populations have been further constrained by factors such as habitat loss, hunting, and pest control by farmers. The European rabbit has not been able to overcome these threats, despite its rapid rate of reproduction, and the species is listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN.
 
The European rabbit is considered to be a keystone species on the Iberian Peninsula. Its grazing behavior serves to maintain open areas and the diversity of plant species in the landscape, and it is an important source of food for a variety of predators, including the Spanish Imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti) and the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), both of which have suffered as a result of the European rabbit's decline.
 
In Watership Down, Adams does a masterful job of cultivating readers' empathy toward this creature, and we come to know many details about its life. But for many people, that sense of appreciation crumbles when they discover rabbits eating vegetables in their gardens, or when they learn that introduced populations of European rabbits have led to the extinction of native animals and threaten species of native plants. Where the rabbit itself is threatened, residents may look kindly upon the animal, but in places such as Australia, the desire to rid the land of this pest runs deep, to the symbolic Easter Bunny, which may soon be replaced by the Easter Bilby.
About Kara Rogers

Kara is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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