Rabbit

RabbitRabbit — 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 rabbit (genus Sylvilagus; 13 species), and the Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi, endangered species on Amami Oshima, Japan). There are many other species of rabbit, and these, along with cottontails, pikas, and hares, make up the order Lagomorpha. Rabbits generally live between four and twenty years.

Rabbits are ground dwellers that live in environments ranging from desert to tropical forest and wetland. Their natural geographic range encompasses the middle latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere rabbits are found in Europe, portions of Central and Southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Sumatra, and Japan. The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) has been introduced to many locations around the world, and all breeds of domestic rabbit originate from the European. Nearly half of the world’s rabbit species are in danger of extinction; many are among the most vulnerable of all mammals.

While the European rabbit is the best-known species, it is probably also the least typical, as there is considerable variability in the natural history of rabbits. Many rabbits dig burrows, but cottontails and hispid hares do not. The European rabbit constructs the most extensive burrow systems, called warrens. Nonburrowing rabbits make surface nests called forms, generally under dense protective cover. The European rabbit occupies open landscapes such as fields, parks, and gardens, although it has colonized habitats from stony deserts to subalpine valleys. It is the most social rabbit, sometimes forming groups in warrens of up to 20 individuals. However, even in European rabbits social behaviour can be quite flexible, depending on habitat and other local conditions, so that at times the primary social unit is a territorial breeding pair. Most rabbits are relatively solitary and sometimes territorial, coming together only to breed or occasionally to forage in small groups. During territorial disputes rabbits will sometimes “box,” using their front limbs. Rabbits are active throughout the year; no species is known to hibernate. Rabbits are generally nocturnal, and they also are relatively silent. Other than loud screams when frightened or caught by a predator, the only auditory signal known for most species is a loud foot thump made to indicate alarm or aggression. Notable exceptions are the Amami rabbit and the volcano rabbit of Mexico, which both utter a variety of calls.

Instead of sound, scent seems to play a predominant role in the communication systems of most rabbits; they possess well-developed glands throughout their body and rub them on fixed objects to convey group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status, and territory ownership. Urine is also used in chemical communication. When danger is perceived, the general tendency of rabbits is to freeze and hide under cover. If chased by a predator, they engage in quick, irregular movement, designed more to evade and confuse than to outdistance a pursuer. Skeletal adaptations such as long hind limbs and a strengthened pelvic girdle enable their agility and speed (up to 80 km [50 miles] per hour).

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