Rabbits are lagomorphs, sharing the Order Lagomorpha with hares and pikas. Rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae (while pikas are from the family Ochotonidae). There are many genera of rabbits, while all hares belong to the genus Lepus. There are over 50 species of rabbits in the wild, however all domestic rabbits are descended from a single species (the European rabbit).
Lagomorphs were previously considered to be rodents, but while the two taxonomic groups share many adaptive similarities they are not closely related. The main defining differences between lagomorphs and rodents is their incisor dentition (lagomorphs have four upper incisors while rodents have two) and their diet (all lagomorphs are obligate herbivores while many rodents are omnivores).
The major differences between rabbits and hares include their methods in avoiding predators (rabbits hide in dense vegetation or burrows; hares have longer legs and try to outrun predators) and the characteristics of their young at birth (newborn rabbit kittens are born naked and with their eyes closed; newborn hare leverets are more developed, with a coat of fur, open eyes and the ability to move around with some degree of coordination)
Genus Oryctolagus – European rabbits
The European rabbit is the most widespread rabbit species in the world, having colonised countries on all continents other than sub-Saharan Africa and Antarctica. All domestic breeds of rabbit are derived from this species. It is originally native to South-western Europe and Northern Africa but has been has a long history of being introduced to new areas by human colonisers. Probably their earliest recorded introduction was to the British Isles by the Romans following their invasion in 43 CE, but their most devastating effects to a novel environment have been here in Australia, following the release of 24 probable hybrid wild/domestic European rabbits on a property in Victoria in 1859. Thomas Austin, who released the rabbits, is quoted as saying “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting”. With no natural predators, no strong competition and a warm climate which allowed for year long breeding the numbers of wild rabbits in Australia skyrocketed to over 600 million in less than a century. There are now over 300 million wild European rabbits in Australia.
The European Rabbit is a social animal which builds extensive warren systems for security and breeding. They average around 34 to 50cm in length, and weigh around 1.1 to 2.5kg. Rabbit social behaviour is complex, with dominant males mating with multiple females and lower-ranking individuals being more monogamous. European rabbits can be highly aggressive and territorial in the wild. Most research on European rabbit social behaviour is from the 1960s, carried out either by the CSIRO or by Ronald Lockley, a British naturalist who popularised his findings in The Private Life of Rabbits. This book is credited by Richard Adams as playing a key role in his understanding of rabbit social structure for the writing of Watership Down, though the author carried out his own extensive observations in order to build his fictional rabbit culture.
Control measures developed to curb Australia’s feral population (particularly Myxomatosis and Calicivirus) have had a devastating effect on European rabbits in their native lands, with them being classified as a vulnerable species in Spain. This has had the run-on effect of endangering many predator species of these areas.
The delightful domestic rabbit – Oryctolagus cuniculus
The origins of the domestic rabbit are poorly recorded. The first record of wild European rabbits is from the 12th Century BCE, when Phoenician sailors mistook them for their native hyraxes off the coast of Spain. Little is known about how they came to be kept by humans originally, though there are records of Romans keeping rabbits in walled colonies.
Selective breeding of rabbits began in the Middle Ages, with many breeds being created for food, wool and fur. By the 19th Century the breeding of fancy animals became extremely popular in Europe, and rabbit breeding for showing came into being. The Victorian Era saw the beginning of the rabbit as a household pet. Due to the popularity boom of the Belgian Hare (a fancy breed of rabbit) in America the first breed association was formed in 1888, followed by the American Rabbit Breeder’s Association in 1910.
Today there are 48 recognised breeds of rabbit in America and 50 in the UK. Australia’s breeds are more limited due to restrictions on importing rabbits into the country, and as a result our bunnies are more mixed than the breed standards in other countries.