Apr 1

Photographic evidence has ended speculation regarding the validity of reported recent sightings of a squirrel-like rabbit in the Forest of Dean, England.

Photograph of a squabbit in the Forest of Dean

Currently the only known photograph of the potentially new mammal species nicknamed the ‘squabbit’ © E. Walsh

Scientists have confirmed the existence of an unidentified but potentially new mammal species in the Forest of Dean, England. Reported sightings of a strange-looking grey squirrel over the past three months have raised nothing more than eyebrows. However, recent photographic evidence and further sightings have put an end to speculation, confirming the existence of a small rodent-like mammal that indeed somewhat resembles both the grey squirrel and the European rabbit.

Affectionately dubbed the ‘squabbit’, this new zoological discovery is stumping scientists as to which species it is more closely related; the grey squirrel is a rodent, whereas the European rabbit is a lagomorph. Its bizarre appearance has led the scientists to believe that it may well be a type of arboreal rabbit. The discovery of a new mammal species in the UK is extremely rare, and the case is being treated with extreme caution. However, should the squabbit be formally described as a new species, this would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries for Britain this century.

Squabbit scat sample

Scat sample of the potential new species collected for DNA analysis © E. Cureuil

Slightly larger than the grey squirrel, the squabbit has predominantly grey fur which is a lighter reddish-brown between the ears and at the back of the neck. It has the long, bushy tail characteristic of the grey squirrel, thought to aide its balance when climbing trees, but larger, rounded paws more similar to those of a rabbit. Indeed, the paws of this species are presenting somewhat of a mystery, as the shape would lead scientists to assume that it is a ground-dwelling rather than tree-dwelling species. Surprisingly, however, the majority of reports of the squabbit have described its nimble climbing behaviour and ease of movement among the treetops. The most unusual feature setting this species apart from grey squirrels is its long, rabbit-like ears that are held upright above its head.

Edouard Cureuil, Professor of Rodent Evolution and Ecology at the Université Thierry Lodé, Paris, commented, “Although there is a possibility of genetic mutation within the grey squirrel population, the morphological differences appear too great to attribute to mutation…initial thoughts are that it represents an entirely new species that has somehow, until now, evaded the human eye.”

Grey squirrel with hazelnut in mouth

The squabbit is believed to have a similar diet to the grey squirrel, feeding on acorns, nuts and seeds, among other things.

The fact that the squabbit has so far avoided detection leads scientists to speculate that the species is predominantly nocturnal, and that Britain’s currently unpredictable climate may have disrupted its behaviour. It is thought to have a diet similar to that of the grey squirrel, feeding primarily on acorns, nuts and seeds, although it has also been observed grazing on grass at the foot of trees. Further studies should confirm whether this species builds burrows underground or nests in trees.

Several theories on the arboreal tendencies of the squabbit have been discussed, the most popular being an adaptation response to predation risks from wild boar and the many birds of prey present in the Forest of Dean. Camera traps have been deployed throughout the small area in which the squabbit occurs, and it is hoped that they will enable scientists to gain further insight into the behaviour of this bizarre new species. Scat samples have also been collected for DNA analysis which should shed some light on the unclear ancestry of the squabbit.

If confirmed as a new species, the squabbit will be a major new addition to Britain’s otherwise well-known fauna, and an exciting step for the world of species discovery.

Explore more newly discovered species on ARKive’s newly discovered species topic page.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

Feb 3

Thursday 3 February 2011 is the start of the Chinese New Year and, according to the Chinese zodiac, the start of the Year of the Rabbit.

With nearly one in four rabbits, hares and pikas (from the order Lagomorph) classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List, conservationists are seizing the opportunity to help raise awareness of the many threats faced by rabbits and their relatives.

Habitat loss, overhunting and disease are just some of the major threats currently facing lagomorphs according to the recent IUCN press release, ‘Year of the Rabbit – species hopping out of view?’

Photo of rabbit on hind legs

The European rabbit, from which all domestic rabbits descend, has drastically declined in recent years.

Why are rabbits so important?

Luis Ruedas, a member of the IUCN SSC (Species Survival Commission) Lagomorph Specialist Group and Professor at Portland State University, says that rabbits are considered to be a ‘keystone species’, “They have an effect on the environment that is disproportionate relative to their numbers. Because of this, their decline can have a huge impact on other species.” 

The vital role played by lagomorphs is summarised by Andrew Smith, Chair of the IUCN SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group and Professor at Arizona State University. “Because of their ecological importance as prey, population declines of lagomorphs have led to catastrophic declines in predator species.”

The European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, illustrates this concept perfectly. In its native range on the Iberian Peninsula, European rabbit populations have drastically declined since the 1950s due to the diseases Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Fever, and because of habitat loss, leaving some populations on the verge of extinction. This reduction in rabbit numbers has had an equally dramatic impact on predators in the region, with less prey leading to population declines being observed in the Critically Endangered Iberian lynx, Lynx pardinus, as well as the Vulnerable Spanish imperial eagle, Aquila adalberti. 

The order Lagomorph includes some of the most endangered species on the planet.

The riverine rabbit, Bunolagus monticularis, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. It is now only found in the Central Karoo region of South Africa, where its numbers have fallen by about 60 percent in the past 20 years, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Photo of riverine rabbit

During the last 100 years, over two thirds of the riverine rabbit’s habitat has been lost, and today, only 250 mature riverine rabbits are estimated to exist in the wild.

The Endangered volcano rabbit (Romerolagus diazi) is one of the smallest rabbits in the world. It is endemic to Mexico and is restricted to the central part of the Mexican Transverse Neovolcanic Belt, where the population is under huge pressure from habitat destruction, caused by livestock grazing, agriculture and property development encroachment.

Photo of volcano rabbit in habitat

The Volcano rabbit lives in a very specific habitat type, which is coming under increasing threat of destruction.

Explore more about rabbits, hares and pikas on ARKive.

Read more in the IUCN Press Release or visit the Lagomorph Specialist Group website.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author


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