Invasion of the rabbits

How Australia’s wild rabbits can be traced to one shipment from England in 1859.


In Australia today, European wild rabbits eat through pastures and crops, threatening around 300 kinds of plants and animals, and costing the economy around $200 million in agricultural damage each year. But how did it all begin?


Historical records document that five domestic rabbits arrived with the First Fleet that brought convicts to Botany Bay in 1788. At least 90 separate importations followed before 1859. Then, on October 6th, 1859, Englishman William Austin sent a consignment of domestic and wild rabbits from his family’s land at Baltonborough in western England to his brother, Thomas Austin, in Australia. Twenty-four rabbits reached Melbourne and were taken to Thomas' estate at Barwon Park, near Geelong in Victoria. Within a half century, rabbits had become established across the entire country.


As Australia grappled with the infestation, researchers tried to establish whether the invasion had started in one place, or at multiple locations. Some models thought in terms of several independent introductions. Others preferred a single origin. Genetic research has finally disentangled the conundrum.


A new study of genetic data from 187 mostly wild rabbits collected across Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Britain and France has proven conclusively that a single batch of English rabbits triggered a devastating biological invasion.


The researchers managed to genetically trace this batch back to Southwest England, where William Austin’s family collected them in 1895. Geneticist Francis Jiggins of Cambridge University believes that the descendants of the origin population evolved changes in body shape that enable them to control their body temperatures in Australia’s arid landscapes. It is possible that the wild rabbits in the first arrivals had a genetic advantage when adapting to their new homeland. Thus it was the genetic makeup of a small batch of wild rabbits that ignited one of the iconic and destructive biological invasions of history.


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Image: Rabbits around a waterhole at the myxomatosis trial enclosure on Wardang Island, 1938.

Credit: National Archives of Australia