Rabbits have aggressively spread through Australia. Now we know why - study

A recent study shows that despite several introductions over many decades, the leporine invasion was triggered by a single release.

 Easter bunny (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Easter bunny (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Colonization is a familiar concept to anyone who has studied history. However, humans are not the only species capable of colonizing far-off lands. The colonization of Australia by the European rabbit is one of history's most impactful instances of colonization and is seldom if ever mentioned in a textbook.

A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that despite several introductions over many decades, the leporine invasion was triggered by a single release. By combining genomic and historical information, researchers also determined that the invasive rabbits had wild, rather than domestic ancestry.

Lead author, Dr. Joel Alves, who is currently a researcher at the University of Oxford said: “We managed to trace the ancestry of Australia’s invasive population right back to the South-West of England, where Austin’s family collected the rabbits in 1859."

How did the rabbits get to Australia?

Researchers concluded that the country's "rabbit plague" began in earnest at Barwon Park on the estate of Thomas Austin near Geelong in Victoria. On October 6th, 1859, Austin's brother William sent Thomas an envoy of wild rabbits from the family's land in Somerset, together with some domestic rabbits.

 Bunny rabbit at Alligator Bay, Beauvoir, France. (credit: CREATIVE COMMONS) Bunny rabbit at Alligator Bay, Beauvoir, France. (credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)

“These findings matter because biological invasions are a major threat to global biodiversity and if you want to prevent them you need to understand what makes them succeed."

Dr. Joel Alves

24 furry ambassadors made the journey by sea and arrived in Melbourne on Christmas day and were let loose on the Thomas estate. Historical records and genetic data indicate that within approximately three years, the population had soared into the thousands.

“These findings matter because biological invasions are a major threat to global biodiversity and if you want to prevent them you need to understand what makes them succeed." Dr. Alves said, "This serves as a reminder that the actions of just one person, or a few people, can have a devastating environmental impact.”