Australian citizen scientists hop to it with rabbit virus tracking project

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citizen science rabbit virus tracking

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is calling on rural and regional Australians to join in the longest-running citizen science survey of rabbit diseases in the world, to help keep the invasive pest in check.

Feral rabbits are one of the most destructive invasive pest species in Australia. They compete with native animals, cause plant biodiversity loss, reduce crop yields and cost the agricultural industry around $239 million per year.

Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV), also known as rabbit calicivirus or lagovirus, is used as a biocontrol agent to manage rabbit populations at the landscape scale in Australia. It only affects rabbits and hares, and vaccination is available for domestic (pet) rabbits.

New research—published in Viruses—shows the success of the nine-year disease monitoring program, which relies on members of the public taking tissue samples from dead rabbits found in their area using free sample kits provided by CSIRO. 

Samples can be taken from deceased wild or domestic rabbits. CSIRO scientist Dr Maria Jenckel said the samples provided since 2015 have helped paint a better picture of the viruses circulating in wild rabbit populations.

“We encourage community members from across Australia, particularly in rural and regional areas, to contribute samples for testing so we can get the widest possible coverage across Australia,” Dr Jenckel said. 

“Citizen science has expanded rabbit virus tracking from fewer than 30 samples tested annually to an average of 345 samples tested annually from 2015. The program allows researchers to track the prevalence of rabbit virus RHDV, with samples arriving every week.”

The huge increase in citizen collected samples has allowed scientists to work on a much wider geographic spread as researchers don’t need to collect the specimens directly.

“A citizen science project such as this contributes directly to research on rabbit biocontrol, which has long-term benefits for Australia’s biosecurity, native species conservation and ecosystem health,” CSIRO virologist Dr Nias Peng said. 

“It is therefore critical to sustain such programs for the long term to monitor for emergence of new RHDV incursions and/or recombinant variants which may affect wild and domestic rabbit populations.”

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