The rabbit invasion of Australia began with just 24 animals brought from England in 1869, a new study has confirmed.
- Genetic data has been used to trace rabbit plague in Australia to its origin
- It started with 24 wild rabbits from England, researchers have confirmed
- These rabbits were more able to adapt than the pets that came before them, study finds
The researchers used historical and genetic data to trace the animals back to their importer, Thomas Austin, who shipped the rabbits wild to hunt.
The arrival of these two dozen animals triggered a nationwide biological invasion, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The authors refer to the introduction of the species as “one of the most iconic and devastating biological invasions in recorded history”.
They have traced the genetics of rabbits back to their wild ancestors and argue that this ancestry made them better able to adapt to and invade Australia.
One of the study’s co-authors, Mike Letnic of the University of New South Wales, said domestic populations previously imported for their meat and fur don’t have the same hold.
“It shows that it really makes a big difference to have been introduced, it was wild animals that had the right material that took over Australia,” Prof Letnic said.
“When these wild rabbits arrived in Australia, they were the rabbits that survived the long journey from England.
“Those who arrived here came without diseases. There were relatively few predators and so these animals thrived and so much so that Australia was described as having a gray cover, the cover being the rabbits, and they have degraded much of the country.”
Rabbit numbers dropped after biological controls were introduced in the 1950s and 1990s.
Before World War II, rabbits supported multiple industries and rabbit meat was one of the most consumed in Australia, Prof Letnic said.
“If you read old accounts, it was an incredible number of rabbits. Biological control was so effective that it was no longer economical for people to catch wild rabbits for market.”
The study results showed how important it is for Australia to maintain strict biosecurity, he said.
“It doesn’t really help us much in how we deal with the problem when the horse has run away or the rabbit has bred – but what it tells us is how very careful we have to be. when we bring an animal into the first place.”