Rabbits are small mammals in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, found in several parts of the world. There are seven different genera in the family classified as rabbits, including the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), cottontail rabbits (genus Sylvilagus; 13 species), and the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi, an endangered species on Amami Å�shima, Japan). There are many other species of rabbit, and these, along with pikas and hares, make up the order Lagomorpha.
Habitat and range
Outdoor entrance to a rabbit burrow
Rabbit habitats include meadows, woods, forests, thickets, and grasslands. They also inhabit deserts and wetlands. Rabbits live in groups, and the best known species, the European rabbit, lives in underground burrows, or rabbit holes. A group of burrows is called a warren.
Rabbits live in many areas around the world. More than half the world's rabbit population resides in North America. They are also native to southwestern Europe, Southeast Asia, Sumatra, some islands of Japan, and in parts of Africa and South America. They are not naturally found in most of Eurasia, where a number of species of hares are present. Rabbits first entered South America relatively recently, as part of the Great American Interchange. Much of the continent has just one species of rabbit, the tapeti, while most of South America's southern cone is without rabbits.
The European rabbit has been introduced to many places around the world.
Characteristics and anatomy
The rabbit's long ears, which can be more than 10 cm (4 in) long, are probably an adaptation for detecting predators. They have large, powerful hind legs. The two front paws have 5 toes, the extra called the dewclaw. The hind feet have 4 toes. They are digitigrade animals; they move around on the tips of their toes. Wild rabbits do not differ much in their body proportions or stance, with full, egg-shaped bodies. Their size can range anywhere from 20 cm (8 in) in length and 0.4 kg in weight to 50 cm (20 in) and more than 2 kg. The fur is most commonly long and soft, with colors such as shades of brown, gray, and buff. The tail is a little plume of brownish fur (white on top for cottontails).
Because the rabbit's epiglottis is engaged over the soft palate except when swallowing, the rabbit is an obligate nasal breather. Rabbits have two sets of incisor teeth, one behind the other. This way they can be distinguished from rodents, with which they are often confused. Carl Linnaeus originally grouped rabbits and rodents under the class Glires; later, they were separated as the predominant opinion was that many of their similarities were a result of convergent evolution. However, recent DNA analysis and the discovery of a common ancestor has supported the view that they share a common lineage, and thus rabbits and rodents are now often referred to together as members of the superclass Glires. 
Rabbits are hindgut digesters. This means that most of their digestion takes place in their large intestine and cecum. In rabbits the cecum is about 10 times bigger than the stomach and it along with the large intestine makes up roughly 40% of the rabbit's digestive tract. The unique musculature of the cecum allows the intestinal tract of the rabbit to separate fibrous material from more digestible material; the fibrous material is passed as feces, while the more nutritious material is encased in a mucous lining as a cecotrope. Cecotropes, sometimes called "night feces", are high in minerals, vitamins and proteins that are necessary to the rabbit's health. Rabbits eat these to meet their nutritional requirements; the mucous coating allows the nutrients to pass through the acidic stomach for digestion in the intestines. This process allows rabbits to extract the necessary nutrients from their food.
Outdoor rabbit (side view)
Rabbits, being prey animals, tend to be exploratory in new spaces and if confronted by a potential threat, tend to freeze and observe. Rabbits have a remarkably wide field of vision, and a good deal of it is devoted to overhead scanning. Both indoors and outdoors, rabbits will scan for overhead threats. They survive by burrowing, hopping away from danger in a zig- zag motion, and delivering powerful kicks with their hind legs. Their teeth are strong to allow them to eat and bite if necessary to get out of struggle.
A litter of rabbit kits (baby rabbits)
A nest containing baby rabbits
Rabbits have a very rapid reproductive rate. The breeding season for most rabbits lasts 9 months, from February to October. In Australia & New Zealand breeding season is late July to late January. Normal gestation is about 30 days. The average size of the litter varies but is usually between 4 and 12 babies, with larger breeds having larger litters. A kit (baby rabbit) can be weaned at about 4 to 5 weeks of age. This means in one season a single female rabbit can produce as many as 800 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. A doe is ready to breed at about 6 months of age, and a buck at about 7 months. Courtship and mating are very brief, lasting only 30 to 40 seconds. Courtship behavior involves licking, sniffing, and following the doe. Spraying urine is also a common sexual behavior. Female rabbits are reflex ovulators. The female rabbit also may or may not lose clumps of hair during the gestation period.
Ovulation begins 10 hours after mating. After mating, the female will make a nest or borough, and line the nest with fur from the dewlap, flanks, and belly. This behavior also exposes the nipples enabling her to better nurse the kits. Kits are altricial, which means they're born blind, naked, and helpless. Passive immunity (immunity acquired by transfer of antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes from another animal) is acquired by kits prior to birth via placental transfer. At 10 to 11 days after birth the baby rabbits' eyes will open and they will start eating on their own at around 14 days old.
Although born naked, they form a soft baby coat of hair within a few days. At the age of 5 to 6 weeks the soft baby coat is replaced with a pre-adult coat. At about 6 to 8 months of age this intermediate coat is replaced by the final adult coat, which is shed twice a year thereafter. Due to the nutritious nature of rabbit milk kits only need to be nursed for a few minutes once or twice a day.
Diet and eating habits
Rabbits are herbivores who feed by grazing on grass, forbs, and leafy weeds. In consequence, their diet contains large amounts of cellulose, which is hard to digest. Rabbits solve this problem by passing two distinct types of feces: hard droppings and soft black viscous pellets, the latter of which are immediately eaten. Rabbits reingest their own droppings (rather than chewing the cud as do cows and many other herbivores) to digest their food further and extract sufficient nutrients.
Rabbits graze heavily and rapidly for roughly the first half hour of a grazing period (usually in the late afternoon), followed by about half an hour of more selective feeding. In this time, the rabbit will also excrete many hard fecal pellets, being waste pellets that will not be reingested. If the environment is relatively non-threatening, the rabbit will remain outdoors for many hours, grazing at intervals. While out of the burrow, the rabbit will occasionally reingest its soft, partially digested pellets; this is rarely observed, since the pellets are reingested as they are produced. Reingestion is most common within the burrow between 8 o'clock in the morning and 5 o'clock in the evening, being carried out intermittently within that period.
Hard pellets are made up of hay-like fragments of plant cuticle and stalk, being the final waste product after redigestion of soft pellets. These are only released outside the burrow and are not reingested. Soft pellets are usually produced several hours after grazing, after the hard pellets have all been excreted. They are made up of micro-organisms and undigested plant cell walls.
The chewed plant material collects in the large cecum, a secondary chamber between the large and small intestine containing large quantities of symbiotic bacteria that help with the digestion of cellulose and also produce certain B vitamins. The pellets are about 56% bacteria by dry weight, largely accounting for the pellets being 24.4% protein on average. These pellets remain intact for up to six hours in the stomach; the bacteria within continue to digest the plant carbohydrates. The soft feces form here and contain up to five times the vitamins of hard feces. After being excreted, they are eaten whole by the rabbit and redigested in a special part of the stomach. This double-digestion process enables rabbits to use nutrients that they may have missed during the first passage through the gut, as well as the nutrients formed by the microbial activity and thus ensures that maximum nutrition is derived from the food they eat. This process serves the same purpose within the rabbit as rumination does in cattle and sheep.
Rabbits are incapable of vomiting due to the physiology of their digestive system.
Differences from hares
Rabbits are clearly distinguished from hares in that rabbits are altricial, having young that are born blind and hairless. In contrast, hares are generally born with hair and are able to see (precocial). All rabbits except cottontail rabbits live underground in burrows or warrens, while hares live in simple nests above the ground (as do cottontail rabbits), and usually do not live in groups. Hares are generally larger than rabbits, with longer ears, and have black markings on their fur. Hares have not been domesticated, while European rabbits are often kept as house pets. In gardens, they are typically kept in hutches ' small, wooden, house-like boxes ' that protect the rabbits from the environment and predators.
Main article: House rabbit
Pet rabbits kept indoors are referred to as house rabbits. House rabbits typically have an indoor pen or cage and a rabbit-safe place to run and exercise, such as an exercise pen, living room or family room. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box and some can learn to come when called. Domestic rabbits that do not live indoors can also often serve as companions for their owners, typically living in an easily accessible hutch outside the home. Some pet rabbits live in outside hutches during the day for the benefit of fresh air and natural daylight and are brought inside at night.
Whether indoor or outdoor, pet rabbits' pens are often equipped with enrichment activities such as shelves, tunnels, balls, and other toys. Pet rabbits are often provided additional space in which to get exercise, simulating the open space a rabbit would traverse in the wild. Exercise pens or lawn pens are often used to provide a safe place for rabbits to run.
A pet rabbit's diet typically consists of unlimited timothy-grass, a small amount of pellets, and a small portion of fresh vegetables and need unrestricted access to fresh clean water. Rabbits are social animals. Rabbits as pets can find their companionship with a variety of creatures, including humans, other rabbits, guinea pigs, and sometimes even cats and dogs. Animal welfare organisations such as the House Rabbit Society recommend that rabbits do not make good pets for small children because children generally do not know how to stay quiet, calm, and gentle around rabbits. As prey animals, rabbits are alert, timid creatures that startle easily. They have fragile bones, especially in their backs, that require support on the belly and bottom when picked up. Children 7 years old and older usually have the maturity required to care for a rabbit.
As food and clothing
Rabbit meat sold commercially
Leporids such as European rabbits and hares are a food meat in Europe, South America, North America, some parts of the Middle East.
Rabbit is still sold in UK butchers and markets, although not in supermarkets. At farmers markets and the famous Borough Market in London, rabbits will be displayed dead and hanging unbutchered in the traditional style next to braces of pheasant and other small game. Rabbit meat was once commonly sold in Sydney, Australia, the sellers of which giving the name to the rugby league team the South Sydney Rabbitohs, but quickly became unpopular after the disease myxomatosis was introduced in an attempt to wipe out the feral rabbit population (see also Rabbits in Australia).
When used for food, rabbits are both hunted and bred for meat. Snares or guns are usually employed when catching wild rabbits for food. In many regions, rabbits are also bred for meat, a practice called cuniculture. Rabbits can then be killed by hitting the back of their heads, a practice from which the term rabbit punch is derived. Rabbit meat is a source of high quality protein. It can be used in most ways chicken meat is used. In fact, well-known chef Mark Bittman says that domesticated rabbit tastes like chicken because both are blank palettes upon which any desired flavors can be layered. Rabbit meat is leaner than beef, pork, and chicken meat. Rabbit products are generally labeled in three ways, the first being Fryer. This is a young rabbit between 4.5 and 5 pounds and up to 9 weeks in age. This type of meat is tender and fine grained. The next product is a Roaster; they are usually over 5 pounds and up to 8 months in age. The flesh is firm and coarse grained and less tender than a fryer. Then there are giblets which include the liver and heart. One of the most common types of rabbit to be bred for meat is New Zealand white rabbit.
There are several health issues associated with the use of rabbits for meat, one of which is tularemia or rabbit fever. Another is so-called rabbit starvation, due most likely to deficiency of essential fatty acids in rabbit meat. Rabbits are a common food item of large pythons, such as Burmese pythons and reticulated pythons, both in the wild and in captivity.
Rabbit pelts are sometimes used for clothing and accessories, such as scarves or hats. Angora rabbits are bred for their long, fine hair, which can be sheared and harvested like sheep wool. Rabbits are very good producers of manure; additionally, their urine, being high in nitrogen, makes lemon trees very productive. Their milk may also be of great medicinal or nutritional benefit due to its high protein content.
Rabbits have been a source of environmental problems when introduced into the wild by humans. As a result of their appetites, and the rate at which they breed, wild rabbit depredation can be problematic for agriculture. Gassing, barriers (fences), shooting, snaring, and ferreting have been used to control rabbit populations, but the most effective measures are diseases such as myxomatosis (myxo or mixi, colloquially) and calicivirus. In Europe, where rabbits are farmed on a large scale, they are protected against myxomatosis and calicivirus with a genetically modified virus. The virus was developed in Spain, and is beneficial to rabbit farmers. If it were to make its way into wild populations in areas such as Australia, it could create a population boom, as those diseases are the most serious threats to rabbit survival. Rabbits in Australia and New Zealand are considered to be such a pest that land owners are legally obliged to control them.
When introduced into a new area, rabbits can overpopulate rapidly, becoming a nuisance, as on this university campus
In culture and literature
Rabbits are often used as a symbol of fertility or rebirth, and have long been associated with spring and Easter as the Easter Bunny. The species' role as a prey animal also lends itself as a symbol of innocence, another Easter connotation.
Additionally, rabbits are often used as symbols of playful sexuality, which also relates to the human perception of innocence, as well as its reputation as a prolific breeder.
Folklore and mythology
The rabbit often appears in folklore as the trickster archetype, as he uses his cunning to outwit his enemies.
- In Aztec mythology, a pantheon of four hundred rabbit gods known as Centzon Totochtin, led by Ometotchtli or Two Rabbit, represented fertility, parties, and drunkenness.
- In Central Africa, "Kalulu" the rabbit is widely known as a tricky character, getting the better of bargains.
- In Chinese literature, rabbits accompany Chang'e on the Moon. Also associated with the Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year), rabbits are also one of the twelve celestial animals in the Chinese Zodiac for the Chinese calendar. It is interesting to note that the Vietnamese lunar new year replaced the rabbit with a cat in their calendar, as rabbits did not inhabit Vietnam.
- A rabbit's foot is carried as an amulet believed to bring good luck. This is found in many parts of the world, and with the earliest use being in Europe around 600 B.C.
- In Japanese tradition, rabbits live on the Moon where they make mochi, the popular snack of mashed sticky rice. This comes from interpreting the pattern of dark patches on the moon as a rabbit standing on tiptoes on the left pounding on an usu, a Japanese mortar (See also: Moon rabbit).
- In Jewish folklore, rabbits (shfanim שפנים) are associated with cowardice, a usage still current in contemporary Israeli spoken Hebrew (similar to English colloquial use of "chicken" to denote cowardice).
- A Korean myth similar to the Japanese counterpart presents rabbits living on the moon making rice cakes (Tteok in Korean).
- In Native American Ojibwe mythology, Nanabozho, or Great Rabbit, is an important deity related to the creation of the world.
- A Vietnamese mythological story portrays the rabbit of innocence and youthfulness. The Gods of the myth are shown to be hunting and killing rabbits to show off their power.
- "Taushan Tepe" (Rabbit Hill) was the Turkish name of Kabile, Bulgaria.
On the Isle of Portland in Dorset, UK, the rabbit is said to be unlucky and speaking its name can cause upset with older residents. This is thought to date back to early times in the quarrying industry, where piles of extracted stone (not fit for sale) were built into tall rough walls (to save space) directly behind the working quarry face; the rabbit's natural tendency to burrow would weaken these "walls" and cause collapse, often resulting in injuries or even death. The name rabbit is often substituted with words such as 'long ears' or 'underground mutton', so as not to have to say the actual word and bring bad luck to oneself. It is said that a public house (on the island) can be cleared of people by calling out the word rabbit and while this was very true in the past, it has gradually become more fable than fact over the past 50 years.
Other fictional rabbits
The rabbit as trickster appears in American popular culture; for example the Br'er Rabbit character from African-American folktales and Disney animation; and the Warner Bros. cartoon character Bugs Bunny.
Anthropomorphized rabbits have appeared in a host of works of film, literature, and technology, notably the White Rabbit and the March Hare in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; in the popular novels Watership Down, by Richard Adams (which has also been made into a movie) and Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson, as well as in Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit stories.
Main article: Rabbit test
It was commonly believed that pregnancy tests were based on the idea that a rabbit would die if injected with a pregnant woman's urine. This is not true. However, in the 1920s it was discovered that if the urine contained the hCG, a hormone found in the bodies of pregnant women, the rabbit would display ovarian changes. The rabbit would then be killed to have its ovaries inspected, but the death of the rabbit was not the indicator of the results. Later revisions of the test allowed technicians to inspect the ovaries without killing the animal. A similar test involved injecting Xenopus frogs to make them lay eggs, but animal tests for pregnancy have been made obsolete by faster, cheaper, and simpler modern methods.
Rabbits and hares were formerly classified in the order Rodentia (rodent) until 1912, when they were moved into a new order Lagomorpha. This order also includes pikas.
- Family Leporidae
- Genus Pentalagus
- Genus Bunolagus
- Genus Nesolagus
- Genus Romerolagus
- Genus Brachylagus
- Genus Sylvilagus
- Forest Rabbit, Sylvilagus brasiliensis
- Dice's Cottontail, Sylvilagus dicei
- Brush Rabbit, Sylvilagus bachmani
- San Jose Brush Rabbit, Sylvilagus mansuetus
- Swamp Rabbit, Sylvilagus aquaticus
- Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris
- Eastern Cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus
- New England Cottontail, Sylvilagus transitionalis
- Mountain Cottontail, Sylvilagus nuttallii
- Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii
- Omilteme Cottontail, Sylvilagus insonus
- Mexican Cottontail, Sylvilagus cunicularis
- Tres Marias Rabbit, Sylvilagus graysoni
- Genus Oryctolagus
- Genus Poelagus
- Three other genera in family, regarded as hares, not rabbits
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