Amami rabbits from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands are considered living fossils, and their closest relatives may have been extinct on mainland East Asia a long time ago. And there are only a few thousand Amami rabbits (Pentalagus furnessi) left on the two small islands of Oshima and Tokunoshima, where they roam the undergrowth of the subtropical forests and play an important role in the no less amazing plant species Balanophora yuwanensis. This is reported by Kenji Suetsugu and Hiromu Hashiwaki from Kobe University in “Ecology”.

This parasitic plant does not photosynthesize, but taps into the root system of other plants. In order to multiply, it pushes bright red pods of fruit to the surface, which the dark rabbits, contrary to expectations, are very happy to eat. Until now it was assumed that the animals prefer to eat grass, herbs and leaves, while the seeds of the plant should be spread by the wind. Because while many fruit-bearing plants develop rather juicy fruiting bodies, those of Balanophora yuwanensis are densely packed and dry.

Nevertheless, signs of feeding indicated that animals could be at work here. Suetsugu and Hashiwaki therefore placed camera traps near fresh fruit stands. During the day they also photographed individual birds pecking at the red fruit bodies, but the fruits were only extensively recorded at night by Amami rabbits who were caught eating. They sometimes devoured an entire, golf ball-sized infructescence. Analysis of fecal samples finally confirmed that the rabbits excreted many fully viable seeds.

From the frequency of visits and the amount of fruit eaten, the scientists concluded that the rabbits were mainly involved in eating the parasitic plants and are thus the main disperser of their seeds. This is also supported by the large proportion of germinable seeds that survive the intestinal passage. In European rabbits, on the other hand, only about five percent of all ingested seeds of various plants survive the journey through the digestive tract.

Another advantage for the parasitic plant is probably that the rabbits like to build structures at the base of large trees and then leave their droppings there. The seeds can then germinate near the important roots. Unfortunately, the rabbits are threatened by introduced cats and dogs and deforestation, and with them this ecological relationship.

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The original of this article “When black rabbits die out, rare plants also die” comes from