The World Wildlife Fund warns that a population explosion of rabbits is threatening a remote Australian island’s seabird populations. That’s right, rabbits. We Americans think of them as cute, harmless long-eared friends that occasionally lay chocolate eggs or hybridize with antelopes. But in That Other Hemisphere, they are threatening a 4-million-strong seabird colony using little more than those sinister buck teeth.
Seal hunters introduced rabbits to Macquarie Island around 1880 (presumably because they were tired of eating seal). By 1960, scientists were calling rabbit grazing “catastrophic” in the Journal of Ecology and warning that if left unchecked, the rabbits could chew their way to major landslides. That’s because the dominant grasses had roots strong enough to collect several feet of peaty soil and hold it in place on steep slopes. Once those roots died, the scientists warned, the soil would slip.
Rabbit numbers had reached about 10,000 by the 1980s, and there was nowhere to go but up. Macquarie reached the 100,000-rabbits mark in recent years. And now, the World Wildlife Fund and Reuters report, the land has started to slip – 20 slides in the last month. Right down onto the nests of thousands of breeding albatrosses, petrels, and royal penguins, not to mention about 100,000 momma and baby seals.
The Australians are suitably concerned — one researcher has called for a $10 million rabbit-riddance campaign (large vacuum cleaner, perhaps?). But it’s interesting that even in the 1960 article, the authors noted that once the grass dies and slips begin, they will be hard to stop.
It’s a familiar arc – a population starts small on an idyllic patch of ground, uses God-given gifts (in this case, excellent nibbling skills) to get ahead, slowly goes from thriving to burgeoning, and eats up all its surroundings. At which point the island falls in on itself, chucking the rabbits into the cold Southern Ocean along with most of the other species that live alongside it. Sound like anyone you know?