Our Members, CSIRO and MLA developing new ways to control wild rabbit populations

Our Members, CSIRO and MLA developing new ways to control wild rabbit populations

Australia’s national science agency and Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS) member, CSIRO, is on the hunt for new weapons to use against the nation’s most destructive pest: wild rabbits.

A new $7.7 million project funded by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) will see CSIRO work on revolutionary new technology and scour remote corners of Patagonia in South America for potential additional tools to help us stay on top of wild rabbit populations.

CSIRO research scientist and CISS Biocontrol Domain Leader Dr Tanja Strive said wild rabbits are an invasive species which cost Australia over $200 million a year in lost agricultural production, devastate our environment and impact more than 300 native threatened species.

This project complements the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions by strengthening the existing pipeline of rabbit biocontrol methods and products, Dr Strive said.

“It aims to develop a rabbit organoid tissue culture system, effectively miniaturised rabbit livers-in-a-dish, to allow the cultivation of rabbit caliciviruses in vitro.

“If successful this could revolutionise and accelerate the natural selection of viruses for biocontrol and would have considerable welfare benefits, by reducing the use of animals in research.”

MLA General Manager, Research, Development and Adoption, Michael Crowley said continued investment in rabbit control is crucial.

“Wild rabbits present an ongoing threat to on-farm productivity nationally and resistance to biological control agents inevitably develops,” said Mr Crowley.

“Ongoing research that can be adopted on-farm to control rabbit populations is really important so that we remain on the front foot in tackling these challenges, working together as a collective industry. For example, the Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus released in 1995 is estimated at providing a $6 billion benefit to industry.

‘This latest work will extend the scope of previous MLA and CSIRO-funded work in synergy with the CISS-funded rabbit biocontrol portfolio and if successful could provide a process where suitable viruses for subsequent releases could be cultured, which would offer significant transformational benefits for red meat producers,” he said.

The project will also seek to solve the mystery of what is killing rabbits in Australia, and potentially worldwide. A third of deceased rabbits tested in Australia over the past five years didn’t die of either myxomatosis or calicivirus; but some other, unknown cause. Researchers hope that by finding out what is responsible they’ll discover potential additional tools to help control wild rabbits.

In addition, the Team is developing links to researchers in South America where European rabbits and hares are also an introduced pest species, to find out what diseases they may carry. While importation of any pathogens into Australia is beyond the scope of this project, it will gather valuable information if any of these could be potential candidates for additional biocontrol agents in the future.

Looking further into the future, the study will also utilise genetic sequencing and modelling approaches to assess whether emerging genetic control technologies could eventually be used against Australia’s wild rabbit populations.

Andreas Glanznig, CEO of the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions welcomes the initiative.

This project builds on the major national rabbit biocontrol research program led through our Centre, which is focussed on delivering a new rabbit biocontrol agent every 8-10 years to keep rabbit impacts in check, he said.

CSIRO has been at the forefront of Australia’s rabbit biocontrol strategy for more than seven decades.

CSIRO scientists researched and released highly effective myxoma virus 70 years ago, and calicivirus 25 years ago. While these viruses have vastly reduced Australia’s wild rabbit population, evolutionary processes and the build-up of population immunity mean it is a constant struggle to stay ahead in the arms race between the host and the virus. New biocontrol strategies for safe and effective landscape-scale control of wild rabbit populations are needed around once a decade.

The project will ensure research innovation continues to remain at the forefront to ensure rabbit populations are continued to be managed effectively, efficiently and humanely. It is expected to last four years.

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