Reviled by too many for too long, rabbits form an integral part of Australia’s modern ecology. When humans kill their predators and cause other land changes, rabbits can reach very high densities and contribute to land degradation through overgrazing. But when their predators, particularly dingoes, are left alone, rabbit densities are contained and they perform important ecological functions as prey, herbivore and ecological engineer.
Everybody loves to eat rabbits. Dingoes, foxes, cats, raptures, monitor lizards and other predators (including humans) feast on them. If wedge-tailed eagles were asked whether they want Australia free of rabbits, they would undoubtedly vote “no”! A variety of species find shade and safety in rabbit burrows, and seeds get trapped in their diggings. When their densities are not too high they can benefit plants by symbiotic plant-herbivore interactions such as spreading seeds, fertilisation and pruning.
Eradicating rabbits is thankfully impossible on Australia’s mainland but can and has been done on some offshore islands. The ecological costs of rabbit eradication was most strikingly demonstrated in Britain where they were introduced and considered a pest (European rabbits are native to the Iberian Peninsula, not to Britain). The spread of myxomatosis into Britain hit the rabbits hard, with unexpected consequences such as the extinction of the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion).
Australia too can be grateful for the rabbit.
By Arian Wallach