Unravelling the paradox of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus emergence, using phylogenetic analysis; possible implications for rabbit conservation strategies

N. L. Forrester, R. C. Trout, S. L. Turner, D. Kelly, B. Boag, S. Moss, E. A. Gould

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


During the past 50 years two readily distinguishable rabbit-specific diseases caused by Myxoma virus (MYXV) and Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) respectively, have decimated wild rabbit populations worldwide. Combined with the use of these viruses as biocontrol agents, the consequences for farming, commercial rabbit breeding and rare habitat conservation dependent on rabbit grazing, have been both positive and negative. Moreover, rare predators that rely on rabbits as a food resource, and even hunters, have suffered the consequences of rabbit populations being affected by one or other of these viruses. Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus was first identified after thousands of domestic rabbits died suddenly in China in 1984. Similar epidemics subsequently occurred in other regions of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America, suggesting that the virus had dispersed widely following its emergence in China. However, the discovery that RHDV had circulated apparently harmlessly for many years before the first recognised epidemic in China prompted us to investigate the evolution, emergence and dispersal of this virus in relation to its impact on conservation of wildlife species. Accordingly, we have sequenced new isolates of RHDV and combined these data with a global selection of available RHDV sequences. Using phylogenetic analysis we demonstrate that the Chinese epidemic virus diverged from European viruses that circulated many years prior to 1984. We also demonstrate that the lineages of the pathogenic viruses that emerged in the UK in the early 1990s, are distinct from and pre-date those of the 1984 Chinese virus. In other words, European strains of RHDV emerged from apparently harmless strains to cause epidemic outbreaks, independently of the Chinese 1984 epidemic virus. These studies demonstrate how understanding viral epidemiology can improve the development of strategies to conserve rabbits, rare predator species and the habitat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)296-306
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Conservation
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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