Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the Wild Side: Endangered Rabbit & Hares

Pgymy Rabbits
There are several cousins to our companion rabbits (domesticated rabbits - Oryctolagus cuniculus) that are now endangered species.  A recent article in Huffington Post, "Rabbit Species Threatened By Climate Change" brings attention to a worldwide problem.  Many species of lagomorphs are disappearing for obvious reasons and some not.  The Snowshoe Hare needs snow for protection in the winter as their coats turn white or they are conspicuous to predators with deadly consequences. Pikas who live at high elevations in cool climates are finding their temperature comfort zone is shrinking.

There are a few species other than Pikas, Snowshoe Hares, Volcano, Pygmy and Marsh Rabbits that weren't mentioned in the story.  Take the New England Cottontail, for instance. The prolific Eastern Cottontail that was imported from other states (for hunting) is now pushing them out.  Even the lack of natural fires is a factor.  The fires allowed thick vegetation to grow after a burn and is perfect New England Cottontail habitat.  Then there is the beautiful South African riverine rabbit that is suffering from agricultural and development pressures. Unfortunately, unlike most rabbits, the riverine rabbit produces just one offspring per year and an estimated total of four offspring during its lifetime. Even the European Rabbit (domesticated rabbits are decendants of this species) in their native Spain may become extinct there. The myxomatosis virus has  decimated rabbit populations on the Iberian Peninsula and in turn threatens the survival of their main predator the Spanish lynx. 
Riverine Rabbit

It's the connections of hares and rabbits to other animals and plants that impacts entire local ecologies.  I recently read since hares and rabbits are disappearing in some areas of Michigan, scientists find more deer fawns are killed by predators. Even declining populations of jackrabbits in parts of Wyoming are impacting Pronghorn Antelope, deer and even domesticated sheep. There is no doubt the wild hares and rabbits are important species in their natural and native habitats.  Sometimes  when I mention the plight of "endangered rabbits," people are taken aback a bit since wild rabbits are often seen as pests. It seems my friends who garden and some Australians (understandable) are pretty skeptical. However, there is no doubt rabbits and hares have their place and any extinction is a significant loss.