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European Rabbit: The Rabbit Ecosystem

The Rabbit Ecosystem SAVE THEM ALL: As a bookend to yesterday’s Endangered All-Star, the Iberian Lynx, we focus today on its missing prey, the European Rabbit, whose drastic decline throughout Spain and Portugal has endangered not only the lynx but other predators as well. The rabbit—not a rodent as popularly believed, but a lagomorph—evolved several million years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, then isolated by successive ice ages. Rabbits played an important role in developing and maintaining what has been called “the rabbit ecosystem.” Considered a keystone species for its “landscape modelling” capabilities, the rabbit’s digging and construction of elaborate warrens has a profound effect on plant communities, lizards, and a variety of invertebrates. Indeed, the word “Spain” is thought to be derived from an early Phoenician phrase for “Land of the Rabbits.” Paradoxically deemed a pest, particularly in Australia, where an overpopulation has endangered native species, such as the bilby, the European rabbit is now listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN’s Red List, reduced to as little as 5% of its former numbers, largely due to two viruses, myxtomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (although excessive hunting, poisoning, and habitat loss are also harmful). Biologists intent on restoring the Iberian Lynx have zeroed in on the rabbit as a key element to its recovery: The lynx evolved to predate primarily on the rabbit, with adult males requiring at least one rabbit a day and breeding females four or five. Dan Ward, spokesperson for SOS Lynx, explains in a 2005 report, Reversing Rabbit Decline, that the rabbit is essential not only to its specialist predators, the lynx and the Iberian Imperial Eagle, but also to wild boar, Egyptian mongoose, red fox, wild cat, golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle, and to a variety of snakes and stoats. In recent years, half a million rabbits have been reintroduced in Spain and France; unfortunately, due to the prevalence of the two fatal diseases, this has failed to boost the wild populations. Ward has called for a host of conservation actions: better monitoring and planning, a reduction in hunting and agricultural impacts, and an intensive focus on protecting and restoring rabbit habitat. Andrew Smith, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Lagomorph Specialist Group has said in Lynx News, “Without the rabbit, this ecosystem is likely to collapse.”
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