Hareless: Yellowstone's rabbits have vanished, study says

February 14, 2008
Jack Rabbit
Jack rabbits like these have mysteriously vainished from Yellowstone, a Wildlife Conservation Society study says. Credit: Joel Berger/Wildlife Conservation Society

A new study by the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society found that jack rabbits living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have apparently hopped into oblivion. The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Oryx, also speculates that the disappearance of jack rabbits may be having region-wide impacts on a variety of other prey species and their predators.

According to the study, historical records from more than 130 years ago indicate that white-tailed jack rabbits were once locally abundant in Greater Yellowstone, a 60,000 square kilometer (23,166 square mile) ecosystem that contains both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. However, the WCS study found that no jack rabbit sightings could be confirmed in Yellowstone since 1991 and only three in Grand Teton since 1978.

No one knows what caused the rabbits to disappear, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Joel Berger, a Wildlife Conservation Society conservationist, and professor at the University of Montana. “It could be disease, extreme weather, predation or other factors,” Dr. Berger said. “Since the rabbits blipped off without knowledge, there has simply been no way to get at the underlying cause.”

Dr. Berger believes that the absence of jack rabbits – historically important prey species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – may be causing elevated predation by coyotes on juvenile elk, pronghorn and other ungulates. Elsewhere, when rabbit densities drop predators often turn to preying more on livestock, according to the study. But without baseline data on rabbit numbers in Greater Yellowstone, assessing the impacts of predators such as grey wolves, which were reintroduced in 1995, becomes more difficult.

“Lacking a sense of historical conditions, it will always be difficult to decide whether current systems function ecologically like past ones,” said Dr. Berger.

Berger goes on to suggest that wildlife managers should consider reintroduction of white-tailed jack rabbits into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. “Reintroduction may result in the establishment of dynamic ecological processes that were intact before rabbits vanished from the ecosystem,” Dr. Berger said. “From the perspective of ecological health and wildlife conservation, reintroduction would also show that species loss has serious ecological costs.”

Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

Related Stories

Recommended for you

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

Internet giants race to faster mobile news apps

October 4, 2015

US tech giants are turning to the news in their competition for mobile users, developing new, faster ways to deliver content, but the benefits for struggling media outlets remain unclear.

Trade in invasive plants is blossoming

October 3, 2015

Every day, hundreds of different plant species—many of them listed as invasive—are traded online worldwide on auction platforms. This exacerbates the problem of uncontrollable biological invasions.

Fusion reactors 'economically viable' say experts

October 2, 2015

Fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, and policy makers should start planning to build them as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations, according ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 15, 2008
But should we just let nature "take its course" in national parks, just let species dominate or go extinct as is usual in nature? Or should we "manage" them as living museum exhibits of a particular point in the natural history of their ecosystems? Or something in between?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.