The paradox of keystone species persecuted as pests: A call for the conservation of abundant small mammals in their native range

Miguel Delibes-Mateos, Andrew T. Smith, Con N. Slobodchikoff, Jon E. Swenson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

133 Scopus citations


Small mammals, such as European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), plateau pikas (Ochotona curzoniae) and prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.), traditionally have been perceived as pests and targeted for control within their native ranges, where they perform essential ecosystem roles and are considered keystone species. These species can reach high densities, and have been subjected to eradication campaigns because of their putative negative impact on natural habitats and agriculture and their competition with livestock for forage. Eradication programmes have been a main factor causing sharp declines of these species in their natural ranges. Paradoxically, they are keystone species where they are abundant enough to be perceived as pests. The term " pest" is usually a social perception that is rarely supported by scientific data, whereas there is considerable scientific evidence of the key ecological roles played by these species. We call for the conservation of these species and present a conceptual model regarding the management of their populations. Where they occur at high numbers, and hence their effects on biodiversity are still of crucial importance, the persecution of these species should be avoided and their natural habitats preserved. In areas with high conservation value, but where these species occur at low densities, management efforts should aim to increase their density. In areas of high commercial value, managers ideally should consider changing prioritization of the area to high conservation value by purchasing the land or obtaining conservation easements. In situations with high commercial value and demonstrable low conservation concern, small mammals could be reduced humanely.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1335-1346
Number of pages12
JournalBiological Conservation
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Cynomys spp.
  • Ecosystem management
  • Eradication programmes
  • Keystone species
  • Ochotona curzoniae
  • Oryctolagus cuniculus
  • Pest species

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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