COVID and monkeypox seem to have come out of nowhere and exploded across continents. But the phenomenon of natural selection acting on genetic variants – of viruses or organisms – that have an advantage in a certain place and time is ages old. The rabbits of Australia provide a powerful example of natural selection run amok, favoring a particularly robust mix of domestic and wild traits against an environmental backdrop of plenty of food and a paucity of predators.
The animals that have overrun the continent eat almost any plant, their appetites reverberating along food webs, costing an estimated $200 million a year. Over decades, interventions to control their numbers – from rabbit-proof fences to intentional infections with nasty viruses to shooting – have all failed. "In Australia, the rabbit has survived drought, fire, flood, diseases, predators, poisons and other stratagems devised by man and remains this country's most serious vertebrate pest," wrote Brian Coman in "Tooth and Nail: The Story of the Rabbit in Australia."
Now researchers from the University of Cambridge and CIBIO Institute in Portugal have wed genetics to history to illuminate the precise source of Australia's problem. Their report is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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