The Easter Bunny may have been a welcome guest at your home this weekend, but did you know that the European rabbit ranks among the world’s worst invaders?
The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was originally native to southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa, but it can now be found around the globe. European rabbits reproduce like, well, rabbits, so once introduced they can quickly reach high population densities nearly impossible to eradicate. The high population sizes reached by European rabbit populations also serves to maximize their ecological impacts.
European rabbits are voracious herbivores, and their introduction can lead to extinction of native plant species. In fact, European rabbits can be so hungry for vegetation that they will girdle the bark off of a tree to access the soft tissue below, often resulting in the death of the tree. This extreme hunger for vegetation makes the European rabbit an extreme agricultural pest.
But the impacts of invasive European rabbits aren’t just limited to vegetation. Their voracious appetites may help them outcompete and replace native herbivores. Furthermore, extreme vegetation grazing paired with the digging of intricate burrows has led to erosion problems in some areas. Finally, high densities of invasive rabbits can support the establishment of invasive predators such as feral cats.
The most notable European rabbit introduction has occurred in Australia. In addition to exemplifying all of the impacts discussed above, the Australian invasion by European rabbits is noteworthy because it can be traced back to an intentional introduction event by one specific person! In 1859, British pioneer Thomas Austin released 24 European rabbits on his property in Victoria, Australia, in the hopes that the “harmless” addition to the local ecosystem would provide hunting opportunities and “a touch of home.” Too bad invasivore.org wouldn’t be around for another 150 years to warn him otherwise!