Blink and you might miss it. A team of researchers studying leopards and other cats on the Indonesian island of Sumatra has instead captured a few seconds worth of video of the Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri), a species so rare and elusive that it has only been photographed three times previously, in 1998, 2000 and 2007. Prior to that, the rabbit had only been sighted in 1972 and several times earlier than 1929.
Here's the fleeting glimpse of the nocturnal rabbit captured by the team's camera traps in Bukit Barisan Seletan National Park:
After seeing these images, the researchers took the opportunity to compile further data on the rabbit by asking other researchers in Sumatra if they had ever seen the animal. The only positive responses came from scientists working in Kerinci Seblat N.P. In a paper published online last week in the journal Oryx, the researchers conclude that these two Sumatran parks are probably the last strongholds of the rare species.
"We can't say they don't occur elsewhere," lead author Jennifer McCarthy, a doctoral candidate with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in a prepared release, "but we are saying it's important to preserve those areas in order to save the species."
The isolated section of Bukit Barisan Seletan where the researchers got their photos does not currently get much human traffic, but wildlife in other parts of the park face threats from poaching and encroachment. Sumatra lost more than 3.1 million hectares of forest habitat to logging, coffee and palm oil plantations between 2000 and 2009, so the researchers say it is important to preserve this land before it, too, disappears.
McCarthy's husband and co-author Kyle McCarthy, an assistant professor with the University of Delaware, said in another release that this is an important opportunity to remind people that the Sumatran striped rabbit even exists. "We've had a chance to not rediscover a species but, in essence, to bring focus back to a very rare rabbit. Often things like rabbits go overlooked because most people don't even know there is a Sumatran rabbit. Part of doing field work in remote locations is that we are able to see things like this, and it can be really important for conservation."
Jennifer McCarthy tells me that they their next step is to try to determine what is required for the rare rabbit's critical habitat. "We can then make sure that we direct effective conservation initiatives that will hopefully prevent this extremely rare species from disappearing," she says.
Previous research suggests that the Sumatran striped rabbit was never a common species. It is similar in size to the common European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) but with much smaller ears and several stripes of color in its fur. The Sumatran rabbit is similar in appearance to the related Annamite striped rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi), found in the mountains between Laos and Vietnam. Genetic samples reveal that the two Nesolagus species diverged from each other around eight million years ago.