Story at a glance
- A strain of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease was found in wild rabbits in southern New Mexico in March and has since spread to Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California and Mexico.
- The highly contagious illness caused by the virus only affects rabbit species and is not known to affect humans, livestock or pets other than rabbits.
- The disease was first identified in France in 2010 and spread throughout Europe and later Australia.
As the world continues to grapple with the deadly coronavirus pandemic, another viral outbreak is leaving wild rabbits dead in parts of the western United States and Mexico and threatening their populations across several states, according to CNN.
A strain of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease was found in wild rabbits in southern New Mexico in March and has since spread to Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California and Mexico. The highly contagious illness caused by the virus only affects rabbit species and is not known to affect humans, livestock or pets other than rabbits.
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The Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease virus type 2 causes infected rabbits, jackrabbits or hares to experience swelling, internal bleeding and liver damage. But often the disease onset is rapid, so infected rabbits are only discovered once they’ve already died, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The virus is transmitted between rabbits through contact with other infected rabbits or their meat or fure, as well as through contaminated food or water. The virus can persist in the environment for a long period of time, making it challenging to control once it’s in wild rabbit populations. The virus threatens populations that are already vulnerable and endangered.
“If it spreads, RHDV2 has the potential to cause significant declines of rabbit populations in California, including the endangered riparian brush rabbit,” the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says.
While experts aren’t sure how the strain of the virus made it to the U.S., some ecologists suspect imported domestic rabbits are a possibility. The disease was first identified in France in 2010 and spread throughout Europe and later Australia, according to the New York Times.
Matt Gompper, a disease ecologist and head of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology at New Mexico State University, told CNN while experts aren’t sure if the virus will cause concentrated outbreaks or widespread deaths across the country, a decline in rabbit populations would permeate through the ecosystem.
“Rabbits, wherever they’re found, tend to have a relatively robust impact on their environment because they’re primary herbivores,” Gompper told CNN. “Whether the impact of the virus is such that we’ll see those very dramatic ecological changes as a result is still an unknown.”
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