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Friday, December 09, 2022

Australia’s Rabbits: How a Farmer Spread the Plague

Australia's Rabbits: How a Farmer Spread the Plague

On Christmas Day 1859, a consignment of 24 rabbits from England arrived in Melbourne, Australia. The rabbit was a gift from Thomas Austin, a wealthy English settler who wanted to establish a colony of these animals on his Australian property. He did this – and many more.

Exactly three years later, thousands of his European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were jumping around. In 1865, Austin claimed in a local newspaper that he had killed about 20,000 rabbits at his estate, where he hosted rabbit hunting parties for English nobles such as Prince Alfred, the son of Queen Victoria.

Austin wasn’t the first to bring down rabbits. The first British fleet of ships to reach Sydney in 1788 had five animals aboard. This was the first introduction of about 90 rabbits to the east coast of Australia over the next 70 years. Still, it was Austin’s rabbits that ultimately ruled the continent, a new study shows. Today, approximately 200 million rabbits wreak havoc on farms and native plants, causing $200 million in agricultural damage annually. And almost all of them, the researchers conclude, can be traced back to the fatal shipment Austin received in 1859.

Austin’s brother also sent wild-caught rabbits

To find out how the rabbit plague came about, Francis Jiggins, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues analyzed the DNA of 187 rabbits collected from across Australia. They also studied potential parent populations in England and France, as well as a handful of rabbits in Tasmania and New Zealand, which have also had devastating rabbit invasions.

like a team Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Reportedly, apart from two local populations near Sydney, most Australian rabbits share a common ancestry. The rabbits’ genome also showed that the invasion originated near Austin’s estate in Victoria. As rabbits spread from this location, the genetic diversity of the population decreased, resulting in a homogenous herd of rabbits. In addition, the researchers found many genetic similarities between Australian rabbits and rabbits from southwest England, where Austin’s family had previously collected rabbits for transport to Australia. The researchers conclude that the ongoing rabbit infestation in Australia began when Austin left the first batch of 24 rabbits on his property.

Genetics also provide clues as to why this population was prepared to invade. Reports of early Australian rabbits mention floppy ears and brightly colored fur, two traits common to domesticated rabbits, suggesting that they were too young to adapt to the wild landscape of Australia. However, genetic analysis has shown that Australian rabbits descended from Austin’s brood share a large proportion of wild ancestry.

Historical records confirm this. Letters and lore from the Austin family reveal that, in addition to domesticated rabbits, Austin’s brother also sent several wild-caught rabbits to Australia. The rabbits began to multiply during the 80-day journey.

Australia’s landscape still grappling after the incident

Austin rabbits had another advantage over their predecessors: they arrived in a more forgiving Australian environment. As previous rabbit newcomers entered the bush, they encountered an array of strange plant and carnivorous reptiles, marsupials and dingoes. But by the mid-1800s, the outback was being converted to pasture, and hunters were being hunted to protect the livestock. “It was like a perfect storm,” says co-author Joel Alves, an evolutionary geneticist at Oxford University.

The landscape of Australia is still grappling with the aftermath of this storm. Once the rabbits left Austin’s property, they spread over 100 kilometers per year, despite fences and smallpox-like viruses being developed to eradicate them. In just 50 years, the animals had colonized an area roughly 13 times larger than their native European range – faster than any other introduced mammal, including pigs and cats.

And they keep multiplying. “It’s like a broken brake on a car,” Alves says.

However, not all scientists blame Austin alone for the rabbit plague in Australia. David Peacock, an ecologist at the University of Adelaide, says other rabbits were introduced to the same continent as the animals in Austin. In 2018, Peacock co-authored a study that found that rabbit invasions were triggered by the introduction of multiple rabbits.

However, he appreciates efforts to understand the origins of Australian rabbits, as they may help develop more targeted pathogens to control and potentially eradicate rabbit populations. “The better we understand the origin, spread and genetics, the better we can tackle Australia’s most problematic pests.”

this post comes from science magazine science. This is not an official translation of science– editorial staff. In case of doubt, the English original published by AAAS applies. German Editing: Weiss

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