How wild rab­bits are con­quer­ing the ur­ban sprawl

An in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral rev­o­lu­tion is tak­ing place in Europe – and yet most peo­ple don’t re­alise it’s hap­pen­ing. Hordes of wild rab­bits are tak­ing over the cities, be­com­ing the new rulers of the ur­ban un­der­ground

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - Contents -

The lo­ca­tion could be bet­ter. And at first glance the size is noth­ing to write home about. Plonked slap bang in the mid­dle of two four-lane roads and in the shadow of three large tower blocks, the new build of­fers just 58 square me­tres of liv­ing space. In spite of this, the new res­i­dents seem to be set­tling in well. For the colony of 20 wild rab­bits, the traf­fic is­land in the city cen­tre of­fers the per­fect ur­ban life­style. Like mil­lions of their fel­low species mem­bers they also pre­fer the bright lights of the city over the peace and quiet of the coun­try­side. But why? What is draw­ing these street­wise bun­nies to Europe’s busy cities?

ONE-BED­ROOM FLAT IN­STEAD OF A BIG FAM­ILY HOME

Tens of thou­sands? Hun­dreds of thou­sands? No­body knows ex­actly how many wild rab­bits have moved from the coun­try to the city in re­cent years. But in traf­fic is­lands, car parks, gar­dens, ceme­ter­ies and waste­land – the num­ber of wild rab­bits in some of Europe’s largest me­trop­o­lises is sky­rock­et­ing. The deep tun­nels and liv­ing quar­ters of their un­der­ground con­struc­tions ex­tend for dozens of me­tres across the cities (see di­a­gram over the page). “The an­i­mals have learnt that they can en­joy good liv­ing con­di­tions in ur­ban ar­eas,” ex­plains wildlife ex­pert An­dreas Kinser. Food sup­plies are very re­li­able, mean­ing the rab­bits can feast on a range of nu­tri­tion, in­clud­ing food waste and rub­bish, in con­trast to the mo­not­o­nous mono­cul­ture on of­fer in the coun­try­side.

Mod­ern farm­ing has also led to a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of hedges where rab­bits can hide from their preda­tors. No such prob­lem in the city, where tower blocks and elec­tric­ity masts of­fer pro­tec­tion from birds of prey. Con­di­tions un­der­foot, mean­while, are ideal: the soil is no­tice­ably looser – per­fect for dig­ging their un­der­ground liv­ing sys­tems. Re­search from bi­ol­o­gists at the Univer­sity of Frank­furt also made a fas­ci­nat­ing ob­ser­va­tion: they dis­cov­ered that wild ur­ban rab­bits, like hu­mans, tend to live in small groups or even in the bunny equiv­a­lent of a stu­dio apart­ment, while ru­ral rab­bits form large fam­ily groups with up to 50 mem­bers.

How many wild rab­bits have con­quered our big cities is un­clear. How­ever, anal­y­sis sug­gests the rab­bit pop­u­la­tion is in de­cline in many ru­ral parts of Europe – but on the rise in ur­ban ar­eas. Bun­nies are masters of in­va­sion, some­thing al­ready proven in Aus­tralia. Around 150 years ago two dozen Euro­pean rab­bits were re­leased by set­tlers in Vic­to­ria. To­day that num­ber has grown to 300 mil­lion – out­num­ber­ing hu­mans by ten to one.

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