That cute little bunny in your life might have long fur, floppy ears or smattering of contrasting spots, but underneath all the frills, he carries the genes of his plain-looking wild ancestor, the European rabbit.
Known by scientists as Oryctolagus cuniculus, the European rabbit — or the Old World rabbit, as some call him — is at the root of all domestic bunnies. The French monks who first began breeding rabbits for specific characteristics during the Middle Ages — leading to the start of the rabbit breeds we know today — started with Oryctolagus cuniculus.
Here are some facts about the European rabbit that will help you appreciate this very influential ancestor of your pet bunny.
European Rabbit History
The history of the European rabbit is closely tied into the history of the domestic rabbit.
- The fossil record dates the ancient ancestor of the European rabbit to 3.5 million years ago in the Pliocene era in Spain and southern France.
- The first sign of human interaction with the European rabbit appears in Spanish cave paintings dating from the Stone Age. Artists painted rabbits and hares, along with other animals, on the walls of caves during the Pleistocene period.
- During ancient times, the European rabbit was discovered on the coast of Spain around 1200 BC by Phoenician sailors.
- In ancient Rome, several imperial coins of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius included a rabbit. One example is the Restitvtor Hispaniae coin minted from 134 to 138 AD, which shows a rabbit at the feet of Hadrian, who is raising up a kneeling Hispania.
- The first domestication of the European rabbit took place in ancient Rome. Rabbits were kept in large pens and allowed to breed at will. They were used for food and fur.
- In the 5th Century, the Champagne Monks of France began selectively breeding European rabbits for color, fur and size. This marked the beginning of today’s rabbit breeds.
- In Australia, European rabbits introduced in the 1800s reproduced so rapidly, they destroyed much of the country’s native vegetation. As a result, the Australian government has waged war on the European rabbit for more than a century. Efforts to reduce the wild rabbit population have only been moderately successful.
What Is A European Rabbit?
European rabbits are lagomorphs. They are distinctly different from hares and jackrabbits, and other lagomorphs, like cottontails and the Amami rabbit of Japan. European rabbits have their own special characteristics.
- European rabbits are native to southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa, but have been introduced to every continent outside of Europe except Antarctica.
- The European rabbit has medium grayish brown fur with mixed black, brown and reddish hairs on its back. It has light brown to beige fur on its underside, a beige ring around its eyes, long black-tipped ears and a bushy tail. It ranges from 13.5 to 20 inches in length and weighs between 2.25 to 5.5 pounds.
- The life span for European rabbits is 9 years, although 90 percent of young rabbits often die in their first year.
European Rabbit Behavior
Many of the behaviors we see in pet rabbits are inherited from the European rabbit.
- The European rabbit is unique in its ability to build and maintain elaborate burrows. (Its Latin species name means “rabbit who burrows.”) The system of burrows constructed by the European rabbit is called a “warren,” and can be occupied by hundreds of rabbits. Rabbits use warrens to hide from predators and to raise their young.
- Dawn and dusk are the most active time for European rabbits, although they can also come out during the day to forage. Rabbits prefer to stay close to brush where they can more easily conceal themselves from predators.
- European rabbits graze on grasses and browse on shrubs, and spend much of their time eating. Their digestive systems are designed to process food at an almost constant rate.
- When very frightened or injured, European rabbits are capable of letting out a loud scream. They also thump their hind legs on the ground to warn other rabbits of approaching danger.
European Rabbit Breeding
Rabbits are known for their ability to reproduce in great numbers. This characteristic helps keep European rabbit populations steady in the face of predation and other threats.
- European rabbits reproduce year-round. Babies are born in burrows, and are blind, deaf and hairless.
- Female European rabbits take about 30 days to produce a litter of young. The average litter has five to six babies, although females can sometimes give birth to 14 babies in one litter. Females are capable of breeding again shortly after giving birth, and often produce several litters per year.
- Mother rabbits nurse their babies only a few minutes a day. Their milk is highly nutritious, and can sustain the babies for hours. The young are weaned at 4 weeks of age and can start reproducing at the age of 8 months.
Threats To European Rabbits
Although European rabbits are flourishing throughout most of the world, they are exposed to significant threats that have reduced their populations in the past century.
- A disease called myxomatosisis is a South American virus deliberately introduced to Australia in the early 1950s to control rabbit populations. Around the same time, the virus was also introduced into France. Myxomatosisis is spread by mosquitoes and fleas, and it causes death within 13 days after the initial infection. The disease reduced the number of rabbits in Australia, but not enough to control them. It decimated the wild rabbit populations in many European countries.
- Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease first appeared in Europe in the 1980s and soon killed nearly 75 percent of the European rabbits on the Iberian Peninsula. Death occurs about 24 hours after onset.
- Loss of habitat is another problem for European rabbits, who need to live in scrub and forest environments. Modern farming techniques and urban development are destroying the rabbit’s natural habitat, eliminating places it can build warrens and find food.
- The greatest threat to the life of a European rabbit is predators. Rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain, and are considered meals by predators on every continent where they live.
- Hunting, poisoning and deliberate destruction of warrens are among the threats to European rabbits posed by humans. Wild rabbits are considered pests in most regions of the world, and are under constant attack by humans. Despite this, European rabbits around most of the world continue to reproduce enough to sustain their populations.