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Keywords:

  • 18S rRNA;
  • Australia;
  • biological introduction;
  • evolution of parasitism;
  • immunocontraception;
  • phylogeny;
  • rabbit;
  • Trypanosoma

Abstract

Wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Australia are the descendents of 24 animals from England released in 1859. We surveyed rabbits and rabbit fleas (Spilopsyllus cuniculi) in Australia for the presence of trypanosomes using parasitological and PCR-based methods. Trypanosomes were detected in blood from the European rabbits by microscopy, and PCR using trypanosome-specific small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) gene primers and those in rabbit fleas by PCR. This is the first record of trypanosomes from rabbits in Australia. We identified these Australian rabbit trypanosomes as Trypanosoma nabiasi, the trypanosome of the European rabbit, by comparison of morphology and SSU rRNA gene sequences of Australian and European rabbit trypanosomes. Phylogenetic analysis places T. nabiasi in a clade with rodent trypanosomes in the subgenus Herpetosoma and their common link appears to be transmission by fleas. Despite the strict host specificity of trypanosomes in this clade, phylogenies presented here suggest that they have not strictly cospeciated with their vertebrate hosts. We suggest that T. nabiasi was inadvertently introduced into Australia in the 1960s in its flea vector Spilopsyllus cuniculi, which was deliberately introduced as a potential vector of the myxoma virus. In view of the environmental and economic damage caused by rabbits in Australia and other islands, the development of a virulent or genetically modified T. nabiasi should be considered to control rabbits.