Today marks the Lunar New Year and the start of the year of the rabbit. While most gardeners are not fond of rabbits, Dr. Emma Sherratt, Evolutionary Biologist at The University of Adelaide, writes movingly of the plight of the once common bunny and its less common relatives.
In Australia, bunnies are a much-reviled invasive species that causes enormous ecological harm. Elsewhere, these long-eared animals fill diverse ecological niches. The long-eared animals we tend to call bunnies and the lesser-known pikas (small mountain-dwelling animals from Asia and North America) form a group of animals known as Lagomorpha. Science currently recognizes about 108 lagomorph species. These evolutionary cousins to rodents are found on all continents except Antarctica and are surprisingly close to primates on the Tree of Life. In 2013, researchers found that more than two-thirds of rabbit species were already threatened by climate change. Since then, the number of species that are endangered or critically endangered has risen from 13 to 16 on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The rabbits need our help.
Water rabbits are not just an astrological fancy. The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) and marsh rabbit (S. palustris) of North America are adapted to living in wetlands and are known to swim. Luckily these species are marked as least concern on the conservation IUCN Red List. Less luckily, the riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis), a majestic, reddish-coloured rabbit from South Africa that inhabits the banks of rivers and streams is critically endangered. This species faces both the effects of climate change and habitat destruction, and threats from other bunnies. Lepus hares, which are larger and are generalist feeders, out-compete and displace the riverine rabbits when resources become scarce.
Not all rabbits make endless babies
On two subtropical islands in southwestern Japan live Amami rabbits (Pentalagus furnessi), sometimes referred to as a “living fossil” because they have primitive characters like small ears and legs better for scurrying than hopping. The almost black Amami rabbits inhabit dense tropical forests, and are sadly endangered. Unusual among lagomorphs, Amami rabbits usually have only one – rarely two – offspring. That evolutionary adaptation worked well on for an island habitat where there were not predators. However, in 1979, Indian mongooses were introduced to combat snakes. The mongooses also ate a lot of bunnies. Authorities are now working on a mongoose eradication program to save the endemic rabbits and birds from extinction.
In times of climate change, mountains can become islands for alpine species. In the Annamite Range mountains of Vietnam and Laos lives another endemic rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), striped in black and reddish-brown. This endangered species is among the least understood rabbits, but we do know it’s under threat from intensive poaching. In the mountains of Mexico lives the volcano rabbit (Romerolgaus diazi). One of the world’s smallest rabbit species, it is in trouble due to the effects of cattle grazing and land conversion for agriculture.
Even the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species to have been domesticated, is endangered in its native range, despite having been exported around the world by hungry humans who used them for food. In the Iberian Peninsula, where they are native, the European rabbit’s numbers have plummeted. Conservation measures are required because these bunnies are a key food source for the Iberian lynx, which is making its comeback from being the most endangered cat in the world.
Many of the endangered lagomorph species have unique traits that are still to be uncovered by scientists. Limited geographical distributions and habitat preferences make them vulnerable to a changing environment and difficult to study. That is why citizen science is valuable for these species, because local eyes keenly spotting animals is one of the best methods for data collection. So make your Lunar New Year’s resolution to be a bunny advocate.
For example, you can go to the iNaturalist network to familiarise yourself with the diversity of species. And next time you’re on holiday and you see a rabbit, be sure to snap a picture and upload your sighting. In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation offers information and tips on managing bunnies in your garden, and on indigenous species, such as snowshoe hares.