Rabbits in a Stew as Climate Change Accelerates

A new study finds that two-thirds of lagomorph species are threatened by global warming.
(Photo: Wouter Marck Wildlife Photography/Getty Images)
Apr 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Peter Cottontail had better watch out: Climate change is on its way.

Yes, global warming is coming for the world’s rabbits and related species. According to a study published recently in PLOS One, at least two-thirds of the world’s 87 lagomorph species (which include rabbits, hares, and pikas) will be impacted in one way or another by climate change.

According to the paper, some species will be pushed away from their traditional habitats into completely new territories. Others will find their ranges restricted.

At least 10 species—mostly mountain-loving, cold-adapted pikas—may go extinct.

It’s enough to get you hopping mad.

It’s also a situation that will affect humans and ecosystems in a variety of ways.

For one thing, rabbits and related species are “a major human food resource” for people around the world, said the study’s lead author, Katie Leach, a Ph.D. student at Queen’s University Belfast. About 2 million tons of rabbit meat are consumed every year, according to recent estimates by the Chinese Rabbit Industry Association, and rabbits are eaten in more than 40 countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Lagomorphs are also “valued game species, pests of agricultural significance, model laboratory animals, and key elements in food webs,” Leach said.

It’s in this last part that we could see a lasting impact. For example, Leach and her fellow researchers predict that five rabbit species will move northward into the Upper Missouri catchment of Montana and North Dakota by 2100. This could have “a large impact on the plant species in those areas,” she said, because lagomorphs can be voracious grazers. Predators could also follow the rabbits into new territories, with unpredictable results.

Predators could also face risk as lagomorphs in their habitats disappear. “Small mammals such as lagomorphs are hugely important in sustaining predator populations,” Leach said. “Extinction of these species could definitely threaten prey supplies for top predators.”

Although many rabbit and hare species may be able to adapt to their new circumstances, the authors wrote that species that live on mountains and islands will face the most risk. Pikas, for example, have already been observed moving higher up their mountain habitats to stay cool, a process that dramatically shrinks their available habitat.

That fate could be in the cards for a number of other species. Leach said she and her team were most surprised by their predictions that China’s Kozlov’s pika would likely become extinct by 2100. The species, which lives on just five mountain peaks, is listed as endangered.

So what can we do about all of this? Leach said it’s important to learn more about the 13 lagomorph species that are endangered and target geographic areas such as Russia where information is lacking. She said it might also be time to explore the idea of “assisted migration, where humans deliberately move species to areas of more suitable conditions.” She acknowledged that this could be a controversial move, but for range-restricted species such as pikas, it may be their only chance.