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The paradox of endangered European rabbits regarded as pests in the Iberian Peninsula: subspecies differences in trends matter

Patricia H. Vaquerizas*, Miguel Delibes-Mateos, Vicente Piorno, Beatriz Arroyo, Francisca Castro, Rafael Villafuerte

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus faces a paradoxical situation in its native range, the Iberian Peninsula. While many populations have declined sharply due to a new variant of the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV-b), others remain healthy. The latter populations, which flourish mostly in farmland, are even causing significant crop damage. We explored if this difference could be related to the existence of the 2 rabbit subspecies (O. c. algirus and O. c. cuniculus) that coexist allopatrically in the Iberian Peninsula. Potential differences in population trends between rabbit subspecies may also be relevant in assisting the conservation of endangered rabbit-dependent predators which mainly occur in the distribution area of O. c. algirus. To test this, we assessed rabbit trends after the outbreak of RHDV-b by an online questionnaire to the senior administrative officers of all the provincial official game departments throughout peninsular Spain (n = 47). A generalized negative trend was reported by officers in the distribution area of O. c. algirus, while a more stable or even positive trends were reported in the distribution area of O. c. cuniculus. We point to the need for establishing a long-term rabbit population monitoring program in the Iberian Peninsula to further confirm the observed patterns, but also to contribute to evidence-based management decision-making. Our results suggest that there is a need to apply different management systems for each rabbit subspecies.