Oryctolagus cuniculusEuropean rabbit

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Geographic Range

Oryctolagus cuniculus, also called a European, an Old World, or a domestic rabbit, is the only species in its genus. The last Ice Age confined the species to the Iberian peninsula and small areas of France and northwest Africa, but due to human action and adaptability of this species, European rabbits today exist in the wild on every continent except Asia and Antarctica. Domesticated O. cuniculus may be found worldwide. (Parker, 1990; Wilson and Reeder, 1993)

Habitat

The preferred habitats of this species include dry areas near sea level with soft, sandy soil (for easy burrowing). Brushy fields are preferred for the cover they provide, but forests are also inhabited. Cultivated land was once well-suited, but this is no longer the case due to modern plowing techniques which destroy rabbit burrows. Particularly in central Europe, O. cuniculus has learned to coexist with humans in cities, making its home in parks and cemeteries as well as gardens and lawns. Human activities, particularly the spread of agriculture, have often inadvertently helped this species to colonize new areas. (Parker, 1990)

Physical Description

Wild O. cuniculus weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 kg, and are from 38 to 50 cm long. Domestic individuals may be larger. The coat is generally grayish, with black and brown (and sometimes red) sprinkled throughout. The underside of the body is paler gray, and the underside of the tail is white. Melanistic specimens are not unusual. (Macdonald, 1984)

This species (and rabbit species generally) have smaller ears and shorter, less powerful legs than their hares.

Oryctolagus cuniculus is the ancestor of all domestic rabbits (about 80 varieties!). Domesticated O. cuniculus vary tremendously in size, fur type, coloration, and general appearance. (Nowak, 1999) (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999)

  • Range mass
    1.5 to 2.5 kg
    3.30 to 5.51 lb
  • Range length
    38 to 50 cm
    14.96 to 19.69 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    7.395 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Mating in rabbits is generally polygynandrous, though males will attempt to monopolize particular females. (Macdonald, 1984)

Rabbits are well-known for their reproductive capacity. Oryctolagus cuniculus is capable of reproducing year-round, but most breeding activity takes place in the first half of the year. Gestation is about 30 days, and the average litter contains 5 to 6 young. Females experience postpartum estrus and thus may have several litters per year, though spontaneous abortions and resorption of embryos are common (possibly due to environmental or social stresses). (Vaughan, 2000; Nowak, 1999)

One reason for the reproductive success of rabbits is induced ovulation, where eggs are only released in response to copulation. (Macdonald, 1984) Rabbit placentae allow an unusually high degree of contact between maternal and fetal bloodstreams, a condition they share with humans. Thus, they are useful models for the study of human pregnancy and fetal development. (Banks, 1989)

Neonates, called kittens, are naked, blind and helpless. The mother visits the nest for only a few minutes each day to nurse them, but the milk is extremely rich. Young are weaned at four weeks of age, attain sexual maturity at about eight months, and can live up to nine years old. However, mortality rates in the first year of life frequently exceed 90%. (Nowak, 1999; Macdonald, 1984) (Banks, 1989; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999; Vaughan, et al., 2000)

  • Breeding interval
    Breeding may occur approximately monthly.
  • Breeding season
    These animals breed throughout the year, although most breeding takes place in the first half of the year.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 14
  • Average number of offspring
    6
  • Average number of offspring
    5
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    30 to 37 days
  • Average gestation period
    30 days
  • Range weaning age
    22 to 31 days
  • Average weaning age
    28 days
  • Average time to independence
    4 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    8 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    730 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    8 months

Females provide maternal care to their altricial young. Males are not involved in caring for young. (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Domestic rabbits can live to be up to nine years old. However, mortality during the first year of life in wild populations is generally quite high, and can reach as much as 90%. (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    9 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    9 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    less than 1 years

Behavior

European rabbits are gregarious, territorial animals. If soil conditions and forage supply permit, they prefer to live in groups in large, complex burrow systems (warrens). A typical colony consists of six to ten adults of both sexes. Colonies have distinct dominance hierarchies, which are particularly important for males, as dominance position determines which male will have preferential access to mates. A male's position in the social hierarchy means that potentially costly conflicts between males over females are rare. Territoriality is also most evident among dominant males during the breeding season. (Parker, 1990; Nowak, 1999) (Nowak, 1999; Parker, 1990)

Home Range

Home range size varies with population density and food abundance, but is usually under 50 acres and often as small as one or two acres. Males' home ranges are on average twice as large as those of females, and overlap with those of several females. (Parker, 1990) (Parker, 1990)

Communication and Perception

Oryctolagus cuniculus is generally nocturnal, spending its days underground and foraging from evening until morning. Though generally silent, rabbits are capable of making loud screams when frightened or injured. They communicate with each other through scent cues and touch, and thump their hindlimbs on the ground to warn of danger. (Nowak, 1999; Parker, 1990) (Nowak, 1999; Parker, 1990)

Food Habits

Oryctolagus cuniculus is a generalized herbivore, eating a diverse diet of grasses, leaves, buds, tree bark, and roots. Gardeners know them to eat lettuce, cabbage, root vegetables, and grains.

Although the diet is relatively low in nutritional value, and high in indigestible material, O. cuniculus is one of several rabbit species that are known to reingest feces (coprophagy) to obtain extra nourishment from their food. The species has a very large caecum, in which bacterial fermentation of otherwise indigestible material occurs. Periodically, the contents of the caecum are defecated and reingested. These rabbits are thought to depend upon this process for some essential nutrients, which are released or produced by bacteria and absorbed on this second pass through the digestive system. (Macdonald, 1984; Vaughan, 2000) (Macdonald, 1984; Vaughan, et al., 2000)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • flowers
  • Other Foods
  • dung

Predation

Rabbits are preyed upon by a wide variety of carnivores, including canines, felines, mustelids, hawks and owls.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Old World rabbits represent one of the most economically important mammal species. Wild O. cuniculus is a popular game animal, especially in Europe. Varieties of this speces are raised commercially for meat, skins and wool, and are popular as pets. These rabbits are used extensively (.5 million/year) in medical research and for testing the safety of chemicals and consumer products. (Nowak, 1999; Banks, 1989) (Banks, 1989; Nowak, 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Oryctolagus cuniculus has been highly successful in most places where it has been introduced, and it is considered an agricultural pest in many areas (especially where its natural predators have been eliminated). These animals eat cultivated crops and compete with domestic animals for forage. Millions of dollars are spent annually in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States in efforts to control, confine or exterminate them. Additionally, rabbits have inflicted enormous ecological damage in some areas where they have been introduced. (Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999)

Conservation Status

Few mammal species are farther from extinction than O. cuniculus. Not only is it valuable to humans as a domestic and game animal, but wild populations have established themselves successfully in many parts of the world. However, one variety of O. cuniculus found on islands in the Atlantic and Mediterranean may be at risk. (Wilson & Reeder, 1993)

Other Comments

Due to its popularity as a game animal and a food source, O. cuniculus has been introduced by humans widely around the world. These animals spread through much of the Mediterranean world in Roman times, and through much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Domestication and selective breeding have been practiced for over 1000 years. During the Age of Exploration, rabbits were left on hundreds of islands as a food source for later voyages, often with devastating consequences for island ecologies. (Nowak, 1999)

The introduction of O. cuniculus into Australia has created an ongoing ecological case study. The first rabbits were brought to Australia in the late 1700s, but the "invasion" really began around 1850. By 1900 O. cuniculus in Australia numbered an estimated 20 million. Its range, limited only by lack of water, spanned 1600 km. These animals became a serious threat to agriculture, primarily by competing for food with sheep and cattle. Therefore, extensive (and generally unsuccessful) efforts to control them were undertaken, including the large-scale use of poison baits. (Parker, 1990) A problem of secondary poisoning of rabbit predators (themselves introduced) has been documented. (Heyward & Norbury, 1999)

The economic costs to agriculture are dwarfed, however, by the ecological cost to the indigenous Australian flora and fauna. Many native mammal species are at a competitive disadvantage to rabbits. A number of extinctions have been reported, with many other species in steep decline, though introduced predators have undoubtedly also played a role. Plant communities are also devastated by the voracious rabbits, and the denuded landscape is subject to increased erosion, further threatening native species through habitat destruction. (Parker, 1990; Nowak, 1999)

On the other hand, rabbits may provide benefits to some native species. Their burrowing loosens soil, which can be advantageous for certain plant and animal species, and abandoned burrows provide ready-made shelters. (Parker, 1990)

A new chapter in the war against rabbits began with the introduction of the disease myxomatosis into populations of O. cuniculus in the 1950s. Myxomatosis is caused by a virus endemic to South American rabbits, which have developed such a resistance that the disease has little effect on them. However, when European rabbits were first exposed to the virus, the effect was devastating. In some areas the rabbit population was virtually wiped out. Those rabbits that survived gradually became more resistant, but this immunity weakens over time in the absence of the virus. The result is that rabbit populations have been reduced, sometimes by more than 90%, and remaining populations are periodically ravaged by new epidemics of the virus. Myxomatosis has failed to eradicate rabbits, as many had hoped, but it has greatly diminished their numbers. (Heyward and Norbury, 1999; Macdonald, 1984; Nowak, 1999; Vaughan, et al., 2000)

Contributors

Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Ati Tislerics (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cosmopolitan

having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)

infrared/heat

(as keyword in perception channel section) This animal has a special ability to detect heat from other organisms in its environment.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Banks, R. 1989. "Rabbits: Models and Research Applications (USAMRIID Seminar Series)" (On-line). Accessed November 29, 1999 at http://netvet.wustl.edu/species/rabbits/rabtmodl.txt.

Heyward, R., G. Norbury. 1999. Secondary poisoning of ferrets and cats after 1080 rabbit poisoning. Wildlife Research, 26(1): 75-80.

Macdonald, D. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York, NY: Facts on File Publications.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Baltimore and London: The John's Hopkins University Press.

Parker, S. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc..

Thompson, H., C. King. 1994. The European Rabbit: The History and Biology of a Successful Colonizer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Vaughan, T., J. Ryan, N. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammology. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc..

Wilson, D., D. Reeder. 1993. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. Washington, D.C: The Smithsonian Institution.