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Rabbits and hares a conservation nightmare?

Throughout history, humans have deliberately translocated rabbits and hares (leporids) around the world, so they now occupy every continent, with the exception of Antarctica.

But our bunnies are not always lovable, at least not from a conservationist viewpoint.  They can be a pest, creating economic and ecological mayhem.

A new Mammal Review article examines studies on the twelve leporid species that have been introduced by humans to areas beyond their native ranges, highlighting the effects on the ecosystem at different levels.

Rabbits and Hares breed fast

One thing is certain about rabbits. Rabbits breed like rabbits, and that means fast!

Most leporids have multiple litters per year with litter sizes varying from 1 to 11 individuals, and each female produces between 10 and 45 young per year.  This makes them resilient to predation, and enables them to adapt rapidly to environmental change.  They can also rapidly colonise a range of environments.

Thus, measures to eradicate invasive leporid species usually end in failure.  Their impact on the ecosystem is deep and far reaching. They literally dig in.


Photo credit: Gonzalo Ignazi

Impact on nutrition and landscape

Rabbits and hares can affect their surroundings by chemically and physically changing their environment and landscape, and profoundly affecting soil nutrient availability. 

The authors of the review note that leporids can provide food resources to predators, modify nutrient availability and soil structure, compete with native herbivores, consume crops, and have other major impacts, all of which affect other native species.

In exotic locations their impact can be detrimental

In their native ranges, leporids are widely known to benefit plant community richness, composition, and succession.  But, in exotic locations their effects can be detrimental. 

In their native range, leporids commonly compete with several other mammal species, whilst in their exotic locations they put pressure on native herbivores.  The native species have little time to adapt to the changes made by the invaders. 

Conservation strategies

For all these reasons, the authors suggest conservation biologists should carefully consider the effects of leporids when planning management strategies that include these species.

Researcher and co-author of the report Dr. Facundo Barbar, of Universidad Nacional del Comahue, in Argentina says:

“Although conservation issues and economic costs produced by rabbit introductions around the world are well known, there is a lack of systematic information about this regarding their closest relatives."

Hares and rabbits share some biological traits which could make them successful invaders and profoundly change the invaded regions. Perhaps one of the most notorious effects (among the many that they produce), is that they constitute a new and abundant food resource to a wide variety of predators, ultimately changing biological communities.
He goes on to conclude:
Considering all introduced leporid species and their many effects on the ecosystems is crucial at the time of planning conservation strategies.

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