Reviled by too many for too long, for causing "land degradation", rabbits form an integral part of Australia’s modern ecology. When humans kill their predators, rabbit numbers can increase and plant cover can decrease. But when their predators, particularly dingoes and foxes, 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 moderated they benefit plants by symbiotic plant-herbivore interactions such as spreading seeds, soil fertilisation and aeration, and pruning.
Eradicating rabbits is thankfully impossible on Australia’s mainland but sadly 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 including the extinction of the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion).
Australia too can be grateful for the rabbit.
By Arian Wallach