Rabbits of the World
There are over 50 species of rabbits, but it is the European rabbit which has been developed into the many different breeds of domestic rabbit we keep as pets.
Rabbits share 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.
Lagomorphs are commonly 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)
- the characteristics of their young at birth (newborn rabbits (“kittens”) are born naked and with their eyes closed; newborn hares (“leverets”) are better developed – their eyes are open and they can move around with some degree of coordination) (Macdonald 2001).
Amami (or Ryukyu) Rabbits
This species of rabbit is found on two islands off the southern tip of Japan, Amami Ōshima and Tokunoshima. Although once occupying the Asian mainland this ‘living fossil’ is now endangered, with less than 5000 individuals remaining.
They are a short stocky rabbit weighing no more than 3kg and have dark brown fur. Interestingly this species of rabbit communicates with clicks and calls, unusual in rabbits.
The Riverine Rabbit (Bushman Rabbit) is also an endangered species with no more then 200 individuals known. It was thought to be extinct prior to 1979. This rabbit is only found in the central and southern regions of the Karoo Desert of South Africa’s Cape Province.
Although making burrows for their young, these rabbits shelter in hollows scaped into the ground during the day, and are active at night. Unlike most rabbit species they have a single naked and blind kitten per litter, and this low reproductive rate is thought to be a reason for their decrease in numbers.
The Sumatran Striped Rabbit
Found in the Barisan Mountains in western Sumatra, this rabbit species is 40cm in length and a light grey with black stripes. With its short ears it is regarded as displaying the most beautiful colouration amongst all rabbits and hares.
A critically endangered rabbit, the Sumatran Rabbit lives at altitudes of 600-1400 meters. It was last photographed in 2011 using a camera trap, and in 2008 was photographed in person by WWF scientists. Prior to this it was feared to be extinct. Sumatran Striped Rabbits do not dig their own burrows as most animals do, they reuse pre-dug burrows. This species, like our domestic rabbits, warns its kind in moments of threats by thumping on the ground.
Annamite Striped Rabbit
The Annamite Striped Rabbit is a species of rabbit native to the Annamite mountain range on the Laos-Vietnam border. The rabbit is striped with a red rump, and resembles the Sumatran Striped Rabbit. This species was discovered recently in 1999.
This is a small rabbit that resides in the mountains of Mexico. It is the world’s second smallest species of rabbit, weighing no more than 600g. Volcano Rabbits live in families of two to five animals. They are nocturnal and spend the day hiding in burrows. The Volcano Rabbit utters very high-pitched sounds to warn of danger rather than the traditional thump. Living 45 mins from 17 million people (Mexico city) this species is considered endangered with, 1000 to 1200 left in the wild.
The Pygmy Rabbit is the world’s smallest rabbit, weighing no more then 500 grams. It is found in the western United States near Idaho and is considered endangered.
Genus Sylvilagus: Subgenus Tapeti
The Swamp Rabbit is a large cottontail rabbit found in the swamps and wetlands of the Southern United States.
It appears similar to many cottontails but is generally brown and white. The semi-aquatic cottontail will occasionally hide from natural enemies by sitting still in shallow water, exposing only its nose to the air to breathe.
The Tapeti (or Brazilian Rabbit or Forest Rabbit) is a cottontail rabbit species found in Central and South America.
It is a solitary, nocturnal animal, usually seen after nightfall or before dawn feeding on grass and browse. It is found in forested habitats, close to swamps and along river edges, and in disturbed areas, such as gardens and plantations.
Dice’s Cottontail is a species of cottontail that is found in Costa Rica and Panama, in cloud forest habitats. Not much is known about this species.
The Omilteme Cottontail is a cottontail rabbit found only in the state of Guerrero, Mexico in the mountain range of Sierra Madre del Sur. The Omilteme Cottontail has a large body with long ears and a short tail. The Omilteme Cottontail is considered one of the most endangered rabbit species in the world with confirmed sightings only in the 1800’s. It is not known if this species is extinct or not.
This species is found throughout Florida and South-eastern US. It lives in the marsh plans and is semi-aquatic and a good swimmer. They are highly territorial and can have up to ten litters a year.
Venezuelan Lowland Rabbit
Only found recently, this species of rabbit occurs in the lowlands of Venezuela. Not much is known about this species, but they are likely threatened by deforestation and competition with people and livestock.
Genus Sylvilagus: Subgenus Sylvilagus
Found throughout the Western US this species thrives in dry and near desert grasslands.
Desert Cottontails are similar in appearance to the European Rabbit, but more of a solitary animal. This species also does not use burrows as extensively as the European Rabbit.
The Desert Cottontail is not usually active in the middle of the day, but it can be seen in the early morning or late afternoon.
Manzano Mountain Cottontail
The Manzano Mountain Cottontail is found in New Mexico in the US at high elevations.
Mountain Cottontail diet is made up in large part of grasses found in its moutain habitat.
This species of rabbit is endemic to Mexico. In central Mexico it is abundant in pine and pine-oak forest and in western Mexico.
The Eastern Cottontail is one of the most common rabbit species in North America. Their territory has greatly expanded with the clearing of large amounts of forest across North America following European settlement.
The Eastern Cottontail is chunky red-brown or gray-brown in appearance with large hind feet, long ears and a short fluffy white tail. Kits develop a white blaze on their forehead which fades over time.
Tres Marias Rabbit
The Tres Marias rabbit is endemic to the Tres Marias Islands, Nayarit, Mexico. It was abundant throughout the Tres Marias Islands in 1897, but its numbers had fallen to low levels by 1976. It is thought to have declined by at least 50% in the last 10 years (Nowak 1999).
Major threats are habitat destruction by inhabitants of the islands and introduced species such as black rats (Rattus rattus), which prey upon the rabbits, and white-tailed deer and domestic goats which compete for food and alter the native vegetation.
Mountain Cottontails are medium sized rabbits, averaging between 35 and 39cm in length and weighing between 0.7 and 1.2kg. They are greyish-brown with a pale coloured underside and they have reddish-brown hairs on their hind legs. Their tail is dark in colour on the top and pale coloured underneath. Their ears are short and rounded and they have black tips.
Mountain Cottontails are found in Canada and western USA. They usually inhabit wooded or brushy areas with plenty of vegetation. Mountain Cottontails mainly feed on grasses, but they will also eat shrubs and fruit.
Appalachian Cottontails are very similar in appearance to Eastern Cottontails. They are between 39 and 41cm in length and they weigh between 0.9 and 1.5kg.
They are coloured greyish-brown to reddish-brown and they have a pale coloured underside. On their forehead they have a black spot and their ears have a black edge.
Appalachian Cottontails are found in the Appalachians, USA. They usually inhabit higher elevations and areas with coniferous forests and dense vegetation. They have a home range of approximately 4 acres.
The Robust Cottontail or Davis Mountains Cottontail (Sylvilagus robustus) is a species of cottontail rabbit endemic to four mountain ranges in the South-western United States and adjacent Mexico. It was long considered to be a subspecies of the Eastern Cottontail but has recently been promoted to species level due to morphological analysis. The two species are distinguished primarily by size, dental, and cranial differences. These rabbits typically average a total length of 42cm, and weigh between 1.3 and 1.8 kg. This species is restricted to dry, brushy, mountains above 1500 meters. Despite its rarity, currently no governmental agency provides protection or listing for this species.
Genus Sylvilagus: Genus Oryctolagus
Brush rabbits are small, short-legged rabbits with moderately pointed ears and white cottontails. They eat many kinds of grasses and herbs, especially sow thistle and sea lettuce. They favor areas of dense brush for protection and cover, and are therefore seldom seen. They can be diurnal or nocturnal.
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.
Bunyoro Rabbits have a body length between 44 and 50cm, a tail length between 4 and 5cm and a general weight between 2 and 3kg. They are grey-brown in colour with a pale coloured underside and can be found in the low grasslands and scrublands of Africa.
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.