Blowflies enlisted by CSIRO scientists to help track calicivirus in feral rabbits


Nobody likes a pesky blowfly but scientists say they could hold the key to managing the pest most damaging to Australian agriculture and the country’s biodiversity.

The CSIRO has started using blowflies to monitor the impact of calicivirus in feral rabbits.

Introduced rabbits cost the agriculture industry about $206 million a year in lost pasture and native plants, competition with livestock, and in the spread of invasive weeds.

The calicivirus disease has been highly effective in reducing rabbit populations across most of Australia but scientists have struggled to establish an effective way to track the virus.

A new national CSIRO trial is using blowflies, which eat dead rabbits, as data collection agents to track the movement of calicivirus.

A cylindrical hanging fly trap with flies inside.
Flies caught in traps are tested for calicivirus.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Previously, researchers monitored the virus through liver samples taken from dead rabbits but this depended on the public finding dead rabbits and handing them over to scientists for examination.

So the CSIRO changed tack and trialled trapping blowflies and examining their digestive tracts for traces of the calicivirus.

Detecting rabbit virus in blowies

CSIRO virologist Robyn Hall, who led the fly study, said traps were initially set at Canberra and nearby Murrumbateman in New South Wales.

“We were able to detect rabbit calicivirus in the blowflies that had fed on dead rabbits,” Dr Hall said.

“Sampling [the flies] over time we can also monitor the disease status over time.”

She said monitoring was important to work out which calicivirus strain was the most effective.

Map of Australia showing red dots where trapping trial sites are located.
The fly trap trial sites are spread across Australia.(Supplied: CSIRO)

“For those releases to be most effective we need to know where and when natural outbreaks are occurring and what strain of virus is causing that outbreak.”

This work was also important in notifying pet owners about which calicivirus strains might be affecting rabbits in their region.

The CSIRO expanded the research and last year placed traps at 23 locations, including Geraldton, Esperance, Moora and Carnarvon in Western Australia.

Dr Hall said preliminary results were promising and the project had been extended until March next year.



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