Classification and Range
Rabbits belong to the order Lagomorpha, which is divided into two families: Ochotonidae (pikas) and Leporidae (hares and rabbits). Leporidae has 11 genera, including the genus Oryctolagus, with just one species: O. cuniculus. This species is the wild European rabbit, from which all domestic rabbits descended. Wild and domestic rabbits live on every continent except Asia and Antarctica.
Wild rabbits live in mostly dry areas near sea level with soft, sandy soil for burrowing. If they need areas of cover, they live in grassy fields or forests.
Domestic rabbits vary tremendously in length, fur type, coloration and general appearance. For wild rabbits, the coat is gray, with black, brown or red scattered throughout. The underside is light gray, and the bottom of the tail is white.
Domestic rabbits range in size from 2-20 pounds (.9-9 kg). Wild rabbits weigh 3-5 pounds (1.5-2.5 kg). Males are usually heavier and taller than females.
Up to 12 years in captivity, but 6-8 years is more common. In the wild, life span is shorter due to predation.
In the wild:An opportunistic and omnivorous diet, which includes mostly fungi, plants, roots, tree bark, fruit, snails and worms.
At the zoo: 4 ounces (113 g) of hay and 2 cups of fruits and vegetables.
Females reach maturity at 6 months, and can breed up to 6 years of age. Breeding occurs mostly from February to September. Mating in rabbits is normally promiscuous, though males try to choose certain females. Unlike most mammals, rabbits do not come into estrus. Instead, males induce females to breed, as copulation triggers release of the egg.
The doe makes an underground nest with straw, vegetation and fur plucked from her underside. After a gestation of 28-34 days, the doe gives birth to a litter of four to eight young. Baby rabbits, called kits, are totally blind and have little hair at birth. A doe spends little time with her young, feeding them once or twice in a 24-hour period. This prevents detection of the kits by various predators.
Young rabbits develop rapidly, their eyes opening after 12-14 days. Within three weeks, they may leave the nest, and can eat solid food and drink water. At about 6 weeks of age, they no longer nurse from the mother.
Rabbits spend their days underground, foraging from evening until morning. They are constantly alert during their waking hours, prepared to run from predators if necessary.
Rabbits are sociable and live in colonies with other rabbits in large, complex burrow systems (warrens). A typical colony consists of six to 10 adults of both sexes. In large groups of rabbits, there is a hierarchical structure; the strongest dominant male and dominant female preside over the colony. The entire colony protects the warren or territory from intruders, and this includes other invading rabbits.
Hare or Rabbit?
Originally classified as rodents, scientists determined that lagomorphs should have their own separate order. Although they belong to the same family, rabbits and hares are not the same animal. Rabbits and hares are physically different, starting with birth. Hare gestation lasts longer, about six weeks, and litter size rarely exceeds more than six. Doe hares do not make nests or dig burrows, instead they scrape out shallow holes in the ground. Hares give birth to newborns called "leverets" who are fully furred, have open eyes and ears, and can run within minutes of birth. Leverets weigh five times the weight of newborn rabbits. Leverets nurse for as long as eight to 12 weeks, grow at a much faster rate than kits, and reach 90% of adult size at only 12 weeks old. Once full grown, hares tend to be solitary.
Breeds of Bunnies
People first domesticated rabbits in Spain (Stone Age paintings in caves depict pictures of rabbits), and then Romans bred rabbits as a source of food. By the 14th century, French monks selectively bred them to produce desirable genetic traits.
There are at least 45 distinct breeds of domestic rabbits. In the U.S., the largest rabbit organization is the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA).
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's rabbits live in the Family Farm, across from the sheep, pig and goat barn. The Family Farm has a Contact Area where children can touch sheep, goats and other domesticated animals. The Farm incorporates many common agricultural facilities and features an apple orchard, and gardening and composting areas.
Currently, no domestic breeds of rabbit are endangered. However, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists at least 13 species of rabbits and hares as endangered, threatened or vulnerable.
Unfortunately, rabbit breeding has negative consequences. Sea-going explorers left rabbits on islands as a food source for later voyages, with frequent devastating effects. In the mid-1800s, rabbits escaped from a rabbitry, and more than 20 million rabbits spread throughout Australia. They destroyed native plants, ate farm produce and damaged grazing lands. People try to control, confine or exterminate rabbits in countries all over the world.
However, rabbits provide benefits to some native species. Their burrowing loosens soil, helping new plants take root, and unused burrows provide shelter for other animals. A wide variety of carnivores eat rabbits for food. Also, rabbit droppings make good fertilizer.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save African mammals requires cooperation and support at the regional, national and international levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in a conservation organization of your choice. Don't buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at email@example.com to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Myerovich, Marcy. 1994. Rabbits Look-and-Learn. T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, NJ. 64 p.Thompson, Harry V., Ed. and Carolyn M., Ed. King. 1994. The European Rabbit: The History and Biology of a Successful Colonizer. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Paradise, Paul. 1988. Rabbits. T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, NJ. 128 p