A study reveals the “mystery” of the biological invasion of the European rabbit in Australia

An international team, led by researchers from the Center for Research in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO-InBIO), discovered why the European rabbit took more than 70 years to invade Australia.

In a statement, the center of the University of Porto clarifies that the study, published in the American journal PNAS, deciphers the “mystery” of the invasion of the European rabbit on the Australian continent.

“The colonization of Australia by the European rabbit is one of the most famous biological invasions in history,” emphasizes the center, noting that the species was first brought to that continent in 1788, but only in the second half of the century. XIX Europeans rabbit “became a plague.”

“The expansion, which covered an area 13 times the size of the Iberian Peninsula, irreversibly changed the Australian landscape and left a trail of destruction to ecosystems and agricultural properties,” he says.

The international investigation, led by researchers from CIBIO-InBIO and the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, combined DNA data with historical documents, and showed that the invasion was “triggered by the action of a single person: Thomas Austin”, an emigrant Briton who, in 1859, imported 24 rabbits from England.

“The story was famous, but the evidence for Thomas Austin’s role in the invasion was vague because there are records of other introductions. However, the genetic profile of the Australian rabbits has allowed us to trace the origin of the invasion precisely to the property where Austin lived, in southwestern Australia”, says Joel Alves, first author of the article and researcher, quoted in the statement. of CIBIO-InBIO.

In the study, the researchers were also able to trace the genetic lineage of the rabbits back to the town where Austin was born in England and from where the rabbits were captured and then transported to Australia.

An analysis of the genetic makeup of the rabbits reveals that they had a “largely wild origin,” a trait the authors say Austin “deliberately chose” as he intended to use them for hunting.

“During domestication, rabbits were selected for various characteristics, such as different coloration and tameness. This made them less prepared to survive in the Australian wild environment”, adds Miguel Carneiro, co-author of the study and also a researcher at the University of Porto. .

In addition to genes, there were other factors that contributed to the success of the Austin rabbits, namely the fact that “they are better adapted”, but mainly “the human impact”, such as “the elimination of predators and the expansion of agricultural land”. “.

“This study shows the exceptional nature of the rabbit as a biological model at all levels, but, above all, it is an unequivocal demonstration of the importance of science to inform and develop conservation policies”, affirms Nuno Ferrand, one of the authors of the study. and current director of CIBIO-InBIO.

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Source: TSF