Genetic perspectives on the historical introduction of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to Australia

Abstract

The introduced European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is one of Australia’s most damaging invasive alien species, both in terms of ecological and economic impact. Biological control of rabbits using the myxoma and rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses has been undertaken in Australia since the mid-1950s, and locally varying genetic resistance to these biocontrol viruses has been reported. The efficacy of biocontrol agents may be influenced, among several factors, by the genetic background of rabbit populations. Therefore, understanding the invasion process of rabbits in Australia, and their resultant population structure, remains crucial for enhancing future rabbit management strategies. Using reduced-representation sequencing techniques we genotyped 18 Australian rabbit populations at 7617 SNP loci and show that Australia’s invasive rabbits form three broad geographic clusters representing different ancestral lineages, along with a number of highly localised, strongly differentiated lineages. This molecular data supports a history of multiple independent rabbit introductions across the continent followed by regional dispersal, and the resulting patchwork genetic structure may contribute to variation across the country in rabbit resistance to the viral biocontrols. Our study highlights the importance of using genome-wide molecular information to better understand the historical establishment process of invasive species as this may ultimately influence genetic variabilty, disease resistance and the efficacy of biocontrol agents.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of the volunteer hunters who generously collected rabbit samples from around the country and of Dr. Tony Buckmaster of the University of Canberra who curated this rabbit tissue collection and permitted its use for this project. We thank John Evans, property manager, for continued access to the Turretfield site and Dr. Ron Sinclair for initiating the Turretfield study in 1996 and assisting with collection of rabbit tissue samples from this site. We are also grateful to Dr. Brian Cooke and Dr. Peter Elsworth for the provision of samples from their previous studies, and to two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. This work was supported with supercomputing resources provided by the Phoenix HPC service at the University of Adelaide. The authors acknowledge the funding support of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC; now Centre for Invasive Species Solutions), the Australian Government through the CRC Program and the Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia. NS was supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC DECRA Grant No. DE120102821) and AI was supported by a University of Adelaide Domestic Postgraduate Research Scholarship.

Funding

This research was funded by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (now the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions).

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Correspondence to Amy Iannella.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Animal ethics

All animal samples used were either archival material from previous studies or scavenged from regular public pest control activities.

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Iannella, A., Peacock, D., Cassey, P. et al. Genetic perspectives on the historical introduction of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to Australia. Biol Invasions 21, 603–614 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-018-1849-2

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Keywords

  • Population structure
  • SNP
  • ddGBS
  • Anthropogenic dispersal
  • Colonization history