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A uncommon rabbit performs an essential ecological function by spreading seeds

A vital hyperlink within the life cycle of 1 parasitic plant could also be present in a shocking place — the bellies of the descendants of an historic line of rabbits.

Given their propensity for nibbling on gardens and darting throughout suburban lawns, it may be simple to neglect that rabbits are wild animals. However a residing reminder of their wildness could be discovered on two of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands, when you have the endurance to search for it: the endangered Amami rabbit, a “residing fossil” that appears strikingly much like historic Asian rabbits.

One estimate suggests there are fewer than 5,000 of the animals left within the wild. The lives of Amamis (Pentalagus furnessi) are shrouded in thriller attributable to their rarity, however they appear to play a shocking ecological function as seed dispersers, researchers report January 23 in Ecology.

Seed dispersal is the principle level in a plant’s life cycle when it will probably transfer to a brand new location (SN: 11/14/22). So dispersal is crucially essential for understanding how plant populations are maintained and the way species will reply to local weather change, says Haldre Rogers, a biologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, who was not concerned with the research. Regardless of this, seed dispersal hasn’t acquired a lot consideration, she says. “We don’t know what disperses the seeds of most crops on the planet.”

Locals from the Ryukyu Islands have been the primary to note that the “iconic but endangered” Amami rabbit was nibbling on the fruit of one other native species, the plant Balanophora yuwanensis, says Kenji Suetsugu, a biologist at Kobe College in Japan.

Rabbits typically prefer to eat vegetative tissue from crops, like leaves and stems, and so haven’t been thought to contribute a lot to spreading seeds, which are sometimes housed in fleshy fruits.

To substantiate what the locals reported, Suetsugu and graduate pupil Hiromu Hashiwaki arrange digital camera traps across the island to catch the rabbits within the act. The researchers have been in a position to file rabbits munching on Balanophora fruits 11 occasions, however nonetheless wanted to examine whether or not the seeds survived their journey by means of the bunny tummies.

A night photo of an Amami rabbit munching on the fruit of a parasitic plant.
A digital camera entice captured this Amami rabbit munching on the fruit of the parasitic plant Balanophora yuwanensis.Kenji Suetsugu and Hiromu Hashiwaki

So the group headed out to the subtropical islands and scooped up rabbit poop, discovering Balanophora seeds inside that would nonetheless be grown. By swallowing the seeds and pooping them out elsewhere, the Amami rabbits have been clearly performing as seed dispersers.

Balanophora crops are parasitic and don’t have chlorophyll, to allow them to’t use photosynthesis to make meals of their very own (SN: 3/2/17). As an alternative, they suck vitality away from a number plant. This implies the place their seeds find yourself issues, and the Amami rabbits “could facilitate the position of seeds close to the roots of a appropriate host” by pooping in underground burrows, Suetsugu says. “Thus, the rabbits probably present a vital hyperlink between Balanophora and its hosts” that continues to be to be additional explored, he says.

Understanding the ecology of an endangered species just like the Amami rabbit might help with conserving each it and the crops that rely on it.

An animal needn’t be in apparent peril for a change in its quantity to have an effect on seed dispersal, with probably unfavorable penalties for the ecosystem. For instance, “we consider robins as tremendous widespread … however they’ve declined so much within the final 50 years,” Rogers says. “Half as many robins means half as many seeds are getting moved round, although nobody’s anxious about robins as a conservation concern.”

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