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Saturday, April 18, 2015

There are rabbits and rabbits and lagomorphs unknown at WUWT

Sou | 4:13 PM Go to the first of 6 comments. Add a comment

Today Eric Worrall has decided, again, that scientists "don't know nuffin'". He writes about a new paper in PLOS One, which is about rabbits. Or more properly, about the Order Lagormorpha, which includes rabbits. The paper was by a team led by Katie Leach of Queen's University Belfast. It suggests climate change will have an impact on up to two thirds of 87 lagomorph species. In the abstract, the authors write:

Climate change is likely to impact more than two-thirds of lagomorph species, with leporids (rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits) likely to undertake poleward shifts with little overall change in range extent, whilst pikas are likely to show extreme shifts to higher altitudes associated with marked range declines, including the likely extinction of Kozlov’s Pika (Ochotona koslowi).

All lagomorphs look the same to Eric. Not only that, but he goes on to write about how a change in environment affected one particular species of rabbit (though he didn't mention it by name). That's the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). It didn't cause it to die out, it caused it to rise to plague proportions.

This rabbit was introduced to Australia by an early settler and has been one of the worst pests - prompting the construction of the famous rabbit-proof fence. There has been a lot of research on biological control of rabbits in Australia, which led to the release of the myxoma virus in the 1950s and, more recently, the rabbit calicivirus.

If Eric had bothered to read the paper and follow the links, he might have ended up on this page about Oryctolagus cuniculus, prepared and maintained by the authors. It shows just how widespread that particular species is in Australia and elsewhere.

Not all species are as adaptable to warm climates outside their natural range. Within it's natural range, south-western Europe and northern Africa, the red list has it as "Near Threatened" :
O. cuniculus populations within the natural range have declined an estimated 95% since 1950, and 80% in Spain since 1975 (Delibes et al. 2000), due to disease, habitat loss, and human induced mortality (Ward 2005). These numbers are based on estimates from a protected area in Spain, Donana National Park, and the relative decline elsewhere in the range (Delibes et al. 2000). O. cuniculus nearly meets the Red List Criteria for Vulnerable under A2acde. There is no evidence that the decline has escalated in recent years, though threats remain and the decline is continuing.  

There are many other species that are seriously threatened and some are considered likely to become extinct. Here is one of the figures from the paper, showing the predicted change in distribution between 1930 and 2080. (Click to enlarge it.)

Fig 2. Change in predicted lagomorph species richness from the 1930s to 2080s.(a) Global patterns in predicted species loss and gain showing details in (b) North America and (c) Asia. Light grey indicates areas occupied by “unmodellable” species with uncertain outcomes. Source: Leach15

Eric doesn't understand science, or adaptation

Eric complains about the paper, saying:
The biggest issue I have with this study is, it doesn’t appear to make any serious allowance for adaption.

At least he's not denying climate change.

Eric is wrong, needless to say. The paper is all about the ability of species to adapt to climate change. It examines the subject from the perspective of species traits. Here's a paragraph to illustrate - (I've broken the paragraph for ease of blog reading):
The predicted impact of climate change on species distributions has only rarely been linked with species traits. Yet, species traits are widely accepted as potentially important indicators of responses to climate change and identifying such traits may be crucial for future conservation planning e.g. [14], [21], [22].
Traits that directly impact climatic conditions experienced by a species, for example, their activity cycle, are likely to be more important in mediating species responses to projected climate change than traits such as diet breadth. If species can broaden their occupied bioclimatic niche through trait plasticity, for example, altering their diel patterns of activity, then they may be less susceptible to future change [23].
Mammalian species active during certain times of the day will experience a limited range of climatic conditions, whereas more flexible species can select the conditions in which they are active [24], and therefore, may be less susceptible to future change [23]. Small body size, nocturnal behaviour and burrowing may have allowed mammalian species to ‘shelter’ from climatic changes during the beginning of the Cenozoic era, following the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction event [25].
Burrowing rabbits and pikas may be able to avoid the impacts of climate change by seeking underground refuge from extreme or fluctuating temperatures [26] and inhabiting thermally buffered habitats [27], whilst larger cursorial species, such as the hares and jackrabbits which, in the majority of cases, live above ground may have less variability in microclimate opportunities within which to shelter [28], but they may exhibit greater adaptation to prevailing climate, for example, changing pelage colour [29] and long extremities (e.g. the pinna of the ear) in desert environments [30].
Dispersal is also likely to be very important in future species distributions, especially in regions predicted to have higher climate velocities where species will require greater dispersal rates to track climatic changes. Larger species are likely to be more mobile, and, hence better prepared to track climatic change [16].

Did Eric read the paper before he wrote about it? Did he understand it? I don't know the answer but can take a guess. He wrote:
However, it is futile, in my opinion, to attempt to draw conclusions about future range, from a model which appears to treat highly adaptable species as static entities. 

Ummm - no Eric. The paper doesn't treat any of the species as "static entities" - neither the highly adaptable or the less adaptable species.  Another thing is that the modeling used actual data. And still another thing, when it came to the species that Eric wrote about, the European rabbit that has overrun Australia, the scientists wrote that they didn't attempt to model them:
Non-native ranges for the only three invasive lagomorphs, European hare (Lepus europaeus), Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), were not modelled because invasive species are not at equilibrium with the environment and their niches cannot be transferred in space and time [34]. 

Silly old Eric. He wouldn't know one rabbit from another. He wrote:
The reason for this adaptability is that rabbits breed like, er rabbits. Any advantageous mutation can reach the entire population within a few generations. Even when subject to extreme stress, such as artificially weaponised diseases, the entire population is reconstituted from a handful of survivors, faster than Australian scientists can find new ways to kill them. The suggestion that a few degrees of warming would have a significant impact on rabbit populations is ridiculous, in the face of the Australian experience. 

Any ecologist would tell Eric (if they bothered with him) that not all rabbits everywhere are able to "breed like rabbits". They need an environment conducive to breeding - including ample food and shelter and a suitable climate. Just because the European rabbit breeds well in Australia doesn't mean that all lagomorphs can adapt to all environments. (Would you expect to see an Ochotona koslowi thrive in the Simpson Desert?)

From the WUWT comments

There were only a small number of comments when I started this article, and not many have been added since. Here's a sample from the ning-nongs at WUWT:

logoswrench seems to think that if only one of the mere 87 lagomorph species survived and all the rest became extinct, that'd be okay:
April 17, 2015 at 9:06 pm
Didn’t they say the same thing about Pikas that turned out to be false? If I’m not mistaken aren’t there desert dwelling rabbits? Maybe they should try selling used cars instead of this crap.

All rabbits are probably the same to David the Voter
April 17, 2015 at 9:07 pm
Australia is overrun with Rabbits and has been for over 100 years. They were introduced in the 1800s. No need for a fancy model, we have a full continental experiment going on here. Without putting too fine a geographical point on it, the little bastards are everywhere from snowfields to desert.

Mark Luhman reckons that cottontail rabbits are okay where he's lived. I wonder how many species of cottontail he's talking about (and if he knows there are several species):
April 17, 2015 at 10:27 pm
I know on thing for certain in my life I have lived or been near four distinct climates, Northern tall grass prairie, short grass prairie, northern forest and the Mojave desert, funny the cottontail rabbit is in all, the one in the hotter climate have larger ears. They seamed to have adopted well to a variety or climates. Oh by the way the jack rabbit occupies the same range excluding the north eastern forest. What kind of moron are getting collage degrees now days and what in the Sam he!! are the looking at?

Reference and further reading

Leach, K, Kelly, R, Cameron, A, Montgomery, WI, Reid, N. "Expertly validated models and phylogenetically-controlled analysis suggests responses to climate change are related to species traits in the Order Lagomorpha."  PLOS One 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122267

Climate change threatens more than two-thirds of rabbit species - article by the lead author, Katie Leach, at The Conversation

Fenner, Frank, and I. D. Marshall. "A comparison of the virulence for European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) of strains of myxoma virus recovered in the field in Australia, Europe and America." Journal of Hygiene 55, no. 02 (1957): 149-191. DOI:


  1. Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit. Elmer Fudd., Bert


  2. Fi-waa.

  3. Mark Luhman:
    "What kind of moron are getting collage degrees now days ..."

    Hopefully the "morons" who graduate can spell "college", unlike the comment writers at WUWT.

    1. That was not a typo. Mark Luhman is correct. Collage is taught at
      Liberty U and Huntsville. Why do you hate Clag?

    2. Hey, I can tell he wasn't a true American conservative: he didn't spell it "moran".

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.


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