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Facts & Profile
The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) or coney is a species of rabbit native to southwestern Europe (including Spain, Portugal and western France) and to northwest Africa (including Morocco and Algeria). It has been widely introduced elsewhere, often with devastating effects on local biodiversity. However, its decline in its native range (caused by the diseases myxomatosis and rabbit calicivirus, as well as overhunting and habitat loss), has caused the decline of its highly dependent predators, the Iberian lynx and the Spanish imperial eagle. It is known as an invasive species because it has been introduced to countries on all continents with the exception of Antarctica, and has caused many problems within the environment and ecosystems. Feral European rabbits in Australia have had a devastating impact, due in part to the lack of natural predators there.
The European rabbit is well known for digging networks of burrows, called warrens, where it spends most of its time when not feeding. Unlike the related hares (Lepus spp.), rabbits are altricial, the young being born blind and furless, in a fur-lined nest in the warren, and they are totally dependent upon their mother. Much of the modern research into wild rabbit behaviour was carried out in the 1960s by two research centres. One was the naturalist Ronald Lockley, who maintained a number of large enclosures for wild rabbit colonies, with observation facilities, in Orielton, Pembrokeshire. Apart from publishing a number of scientific papers, he popularised his findings in a book The Private Life of the Rabbit, which is credited by Richard Adams as having played a key role in his gaining "a knowledge of rabbits and their ways" that informed his novel Watership Down. The other group was the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, where numerous studies of the social behavior of wild rabbits were performed. Since the onset of myxomatosis, and the decline of the significance of the rabbit as an agricultural pest, few large-scale studies have been performed and many aspects of rabbit behaviour are still poorly understood.
Description & appearance
The European rabbit is smaller than the brown and mountain hare, and lacks black ear-tips, as well as having proportionately shorter legs. An adult European rabbit can measure 40 centimetres (16 in) in length, and weigh 1,200–2,000 grams (2.6–4.4 lb). The hind foot measures 8.5–10 centimetres (3.3–3.9 in) in length, while the ears are 6.5–7.5 centimetres (2.6–3.0 in) long from the occiput.
Size and weight varies according to food and habitat quality, with rabbits living on light soil with nothing but grass to feed on being noticeably smaller than specimens living on highly cultivated farm-lands with plenty of roots and clover. Pure European rabbits weighing 5 kilograms (11 lb) and upwards are uncommon, but are occasionally reported. One large specimen, caught in February 1890 in Lichfield, was weighed at 2.8 kilograms (6 lb 2 oz). Unlike the brown hare, the male European rabbit is more heavily built than the female. The penis is short, and lacks a baculum and true glans.
The fur of the European rabbit is generally greyish-brown, but this is subject to much variation. The guard hairs are banded brown and black, or grey, while the nape of the neck and scrotum are reddish. The chest patch is brown, while the rest of the underparts are white or grey. A white star shape is often present on kits' foreheads, but rarely occurs in adults. The whiskers are long and black, and the feet are fully furred and buff-coloured. The tail has a white underside, which becomes prominent when escaping danger. This may act as a signal for other rabbits to run.
Moulting occurs once a year, beginning in March on the face and spreading over the back. The underfur is completely replaced by October–November. The European rabbit exhibits great variation in colour, from light sandy, to dark grey and completely black. Such variation depends largely on the amount of guard hairs relative to regular pelage. Melanists are not uncommon in mainland Europe, though albinoes are rare.
The European rabbit's ideal habitat consists of short grasslands with secure refuge (such as burrows, boulders, hedgerows, scrub and woodland) near feeding areas. It may dwell up to treeline, as long as the land is well drained and shelter is available. The size and distribution of its burrow systems depend on the type of soil present: in areas with loose soil, it selects sites with supporting structures, such as tree roots or shrubs in order to prevent burrow collapse. Warrens tend to be larger and have more interconnected tunnels in areas with chalk than those in sand. In large coniferous plantations, the species only occurs on peripheral areas and along fire breaks and rides.
The European rabbit eats a wide variety of herbage, especially grasses, favouring the young, succulent leaves and shoots of the most nutritious species, particularly fescues. In mixed cultivated areas, winter wheat is preferred over maize and dicotyledons. During the summer period, the European rabbit feeds on the shortest, and therefore less nutritious grass swards, thus indicating that grazing grounds are selected through anti-predator considerations rather than maximising food intake. In times of scarcity, the rabbit increases its food intake, selecting the parts of the plant with the highest nitrogen content. Hungry rabbits in winter may resort to eating tree bark. Blackberries are also eaten, and captive-bred European rabbits have been fed on fodder consisting of furze and acorns, which can lead to considerable weight gain. The European rabbit is a less fussy eater than the brown hare: when eating root vegetables, the rabbit eats them whole, while the hare tends to leave the peel. Depending on the body's fat and protein reserves, the species can survive without food in winter for about 2–8 days. Although herbivorous, cases are known of rabbits eating snails.
Like other leporids, the European rabbit produces soft, mucus-covered faecal pellets, which are ingested directly from the anus. The soft pellets are produced posterior to the colon in the hind-gut soon after the excretion of hard pellets and the stomach begins to fill with newly-grazed food. The soft pellets are filled with protein-rich bacteria, and pass down to the rectum in glossy clusters. The rabbit swallows them whole, without perforating the enveloping membrane.
In the European rabbit's mating system, dominant bucks exhibit polygyny, whereas lower-status individuals (both bucks and does) often form monogamous breeding relationships. Rabbits signal their readiness to copulate by marking other animals and inanimate objects with an odoriferous substance secreted though a chin gland, in a process known as "chinning". Though male European rabbits may sometimes be amicable with one another, fierce fights can erupt among bucks during the breeding season, typically January to August. A succession of litters (usually 3-7 kittens each) are produced, but in overpopulated areas, pregnant does may lose all their embryos through intrauterine resorption. Shortly before giving birth, the doe will construct a separate burrow known as a "stop" or "stab", generally in an open field away from the main warren. These breeding burrows are typically a few feet long and are lined with grass and moss as well as fur plucked from the doe's belly. The breeding burrow protects the kittens from adult bucks as well as from predators.
The gestation period of the European rabbit is 30 days, with the sex ratio of male to female kittens tending to be 1:1. Greater maternal investment over male offspring may result in higher birth weights for bucks. Kittens born to the dominant buck and doe—who enjoy better nesting and feeding grounds—tend to grow larger and stronger and to become more dominant than kittens born to subordinate rabbits. It is not uncommon for European rabbits to mate again immediately after giving birth, with some specimens having been observed to nurse previous young whilst pregnant.
Female European rabbits nurse their kittens once a night, for only a few minutes. After suckling is complete, the doe seals the entrance to the stop with soil and vegetation. In its native Iberian and southern French range, European rabbit kittens have a growth rate of 5 grams (0.18 oz) per day, though such kittens in non-native ranges may grow 10 grams (0.35 oz) per day. Weight at birth is 30–35 grams (1.1–1.2 oz) and increases to 150–200 grams (5.3–7.1 oz) by 21–25 days, during the weaning period. European rabbit kittens are born blind, deaf, and nearly naked. The ears do not gain the power of motion until 10 days of age, and can be erected after 13. The eyes open 11 days after birth. At 18 days, the kittens begin to leave the burrow. Sexual maturity in bucks is attained at four months, while does can begin to breed at three to five months.
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