Castaway rabbits and cattle

Rabbits and cattle were introduced to a remote island near Antarctica as food for shipwreck survivors; they bred there in isolation for more than a century.

Enderby Island rabbit
André Richard Chalmers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember the Auckland Islands, site of frequent shipwrecks from the Clipper route? In the late 19th century CE the New Zealand government set up a series of castaway depots there to support castaways and survivors who managed to make it to this inhospitable shore. But a couple of years before those supply caches, there was another scheme to help castaways: rabbits.

The northernmost of the Auckland Islands, Enderby Island, is small but relatively hospitable. In 1865, a small population of rabbits from Australia were released there. The idea was that they would spread and multiply, and so become a reliable food source for anyone washing up on the island.

Nearly a hundred and thirty years later, the rabbits were still there. (Well, their descendants were.) More than a century of inbreeding left them with a gorgeous colouration, either grey-black or creamy white. They had become a distinct breed, the Enderby Island rabbit.

They weren’t the only introduced animals on the island. In 1894 some whalers dropped off a small herd of cattle. These too had become a unique breed over a century of isolation: the Enderby Island cattle. Apparently they survived on scrub and seaweed.

In the 1990s, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation decided to clear out these invasive species and return the Auckland Islands to their natural state. They culled the castaway rabbits and seaweed cows. The New Zealand Rare Breeds Conservation Society rescued some rabbits and harvested some sperm and eggs from the cattle. They’ve been breeding the rabbits ever since. The cattle, though, were another story.

None of the sperm or eggs were viable. It looked like the Enderby Island cattle breed was extinct. But then a single cow and her calf were discovered still on the island – perhaps the sole survivors of the breed. They were airlifted off the island. The calf died in transit, but the cow, named “Lady,” survived.

Scientists resurrected the Enderby Island breed by harvesting eggs from Lady; later she became one of the first adult mammals to be cloned. This rare breed survives to this day.

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