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Animal of the month: 8 facts about rabbits

Popular as pets, considered lucky by some, and widely recognised as agricultural nuisances, rabbits are commonplace all over the world. Their cute, fluffy exterior hides the more ingenious characteristics of this burrowing herbivore, including specially-adapted hind legs, extra incisors, and prolific breeding capabilities. Whilst rabbits thrive in most areas, certain species face the common struggle of their specialist habitats being destroyed, and myxomatosis has devastated rabbit populations in the past, at one point destroying 99% of the rabbit population of the United Kingdom. Luckily, rabbits have been able to recover from this, and several species of rabbits have lately been able to recover from the brink of extinction. Learn more about what makes rabbits so fascinating with our factsheet.

1. Rabbits, rabbits, everywhere

Rabbits are the primary prey of several different avian and mammalian predators. To counteract this, rabbits have adapted to become super-breeders. They reach sexual maturity early, sometimes when they are as young as three months old, and have short gestation periods of between thirty and forty days. Their litters are large, and females also have the uncanny ability to ovulate upon copulation instead of on a cyclical basis, become pregnant immediately after giving birth, and even conceive a second litter whilst still being pregnant with their first!

2. Critter control

The remarkable breeding habits of rabbits mean that populations have overwhelmed the amount of predators in their habitat on a number of occasions. As a result, measures are often put in place to attempt to control rabbit populations. These can include the introduction of predators to the habit, as well as the use of biocontrol agents.

3. Family fun

Rabbits are part of the family Leporidae, which also includes hares and cottontails. The shared family characteristics are short tails, long ears, and hind legs which are specially adapted to enable the animals to jump.

Image credit: Marsh Rabbit at Smyrna Dunes Park by Andrea Westmoreland. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Lagomorpha

Leporidae are a part of the order Lagomorpha, an order which only came into being around one hundred years ago. The animals in the Lagomorpha order were previously included in the Rodentia order, due to the characteristics that they share with rodents – the most compelling being that animals of both orders have gnawing incisors. The difference between lagomorphs and their rodent cousins is that lagomorphs possess a second pair of incisors next to their main gnawing incisors. The Lagomorph order includes rabbits, hares, cottontails, and pikas.

5. What’s in a name?

Rabbits were previously better known as coneys, with the word rabbit referring to a young rabbit and coney to an older animal. The word coney is a borrowing from Anglo-Norman and Old French words such as conin and counin. Why adopt these French words? Rabbits were originally brought to Britain by the conquering Normans!

6. Where in the world

Rabbits can be found all over the world, from Japan to Greenland! The European rabbit is native to southwestern Europe, and has been introduced by human populations to a number of different countries around the world. Copious other species of rabbits can be found around the globe, some in very challenging habitats. The Desert Cottontail, for example, lives in Death Valley, California, and the Marsh Rabbit lives in Virginian swamps.

7. Medieval Rabbits

Rabbits were of utmost importance in medieval Britain, as they were sought after for their soft fur and delicious meat. When rabbits were first introduced in Britain, they had to be reared in specially-created warrens, as they could not stand the wet British climate at first. Rabbits were not able to freely colonise the countryside until the 18th century! Due to their high value, rabbits belonging to manor houses were guarded jealously against poachers, but by the 14th century efficient and ruthless gangs of poachers were adept at their craft, and poaching, particularly in rural areas, became hard to defend against.

8. Brainy Bunnies

Adult rabbits are capable of neurogenesis, on a higher level than other mammals, such as rodents. Studies of rabbit brain activity have found evidence of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the striatum, and the cerebellum. The exact biological reason for this trait is unknown, although it is believed to be linked to the evolution of rabbits, giving them an advantage in the survival of the fittest.

Featured image credit: “Rabbit Hare Animal” by 12019. CC0 via Pixabay.

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