Be vewy vewy quiet. This threatened species is taking over the world. (Photo by Norrie Adamson)
When most people in the world think about a rabbit, the European rabbit is the one they’re thinking about, whether they know it or not. It has the interesting and almost paradoxical distinction of being an animal that is considered near-threatened even though there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of millions of them in the world.
European rabbits are naturally found in Spain, Portugal, and the northwestern corner of Africa. When Phoenicians first visited the area, they saw the rabbits, which looked similar to the native hyraxes they knew in Africa. For this reason they named the land i-shapan-im, “the land of the hyraxes”. From this name eventually came the Latin Hispania, from which comes the English word, Spain.
The European rabbit is the only species of rabbit that humans have ever domesticated on a large scale. Almost every single pet rabbit in the world is derived originally from European rabbits, even though, as with dogs and cats, many different breeds have been created. We have taken them with us almost everywhere we’ve gone, and so you can find European rabbits almost everywhere, especially in places where they aren’t wanted.
Australia, as we’ve noted, has several hundred thousand European rabbits destroying their country, but that’s not all of it. There are European rabbits devastating New Zealand as well. There are 40 million European rabbits in England, where they are an invasive species. And they are many other places besides. They are one of the few animals that we call pets (because they are cute and fuzzy), pests (because they eat everything we try to grow), and food (because they are delicious) all at the same time. The world is filled with European rabbits.
Adorably tasty, or tastefully adorable? (Photo by T. Voekler)
Which is why it seems so odd that they are considered a near-threatened species, but there is a crucial distinction that must be made. All of our pets are domesticated rabbits, and all of the invasive rabbits in Australia and England and elsewhere are feral rabbits, which means that they were once domesticated but escaped and live on their own. A feral rabbit is not the same as a wild rabbit. They may have similar behaviours, but feral animals are affected by their domestication, and this is passed on to generations born later as well. In most cases, a feral animal is not a natural part of the environment it lives in.
For this reason, when we speak of the European rabbit as near-threatened, we refer only to the wild European rabbit, those rabbits whose ancestors have never lived with humans. A wild animal is a wholly different creature than a feral one.
That said, you may be surprised to learn that we don’t know an awful lot about wild rabbits. We know quite a bit about the tame ones, of course, and we know a lot about the pesky feral rabbits, but wild rabbits are shy, frightful, and spend most of their time either underground or in dense brush, so it’s hard to get a sense of them.
Almost everything we know about wild rabbits comes from the work of naturalist Ronald Lockley, who studied wild rabbits closely in the 1960s and published a book, The Private Life of Rabbits, which would be an inspiration for the novel Watership Down.
What we know from this work and other smaller studies since is that European rabbits in the wild are very social animals. They live in underground colonies called warrens. Within each warren, rabbits break up into groups of two to ten animals that live closely together.
Breeding is one of the most important parts of a wild rabbit’s life — because they are so small and tasty, rabbits ensure the survival of their species by making incredible numbers of babies. Each wild rabbit group has a dominant male and a dominant female. The dominant male gets to mate with just about whoever he wants to, while the other rabbits form mostly monogamous mating pairs.
The social ladder is very important for wild rabbits, and your standing on it depends on a variety of factors. These include but are not limited to: the size of territory you patrol; the number of females who visit you; the amount of time females let you sit near them; the number of friends you have; and the distance you travel every day. Your social credit can also improve based on the number of non-friend rabbits you fight with.
For this reason wild male rabbits will duke it out almost at the drop of a hat. The common method of challenge is for one rabbit to urinate on another, which says, “You are my territory.” Regardless of which two rabbits are involved in this, it immediately leads to a fight. Rabbits may be timid when it comes to dealing with other animals, but when they are alone they are anything but. Two fighting rabbits will beat each other with their large feet and will bite and claw without mercy. Many rabbits die from fights like this.
Once the social order is sorted out, rabbits breed, and they do it as often as possible. A female can produce a litter of two to twelve bunnies in about a month, and in good conditions two rabbits can make 30 or 40 offspring per year. Wild European rabbit males appear to get along well with their children, but this may only be because they want more friends, which means more social standing.
When ready to breed, European rabbits will emit a particular odour from a gland in their chins, of all places. This is known as chinning. If you are ever reincarnated as a wild rabbit and another rabbit starts rubbing its chin on you, well, now you’ll know what’s up.
European rabbits take shelter during the day, and only typically emerge to feed on fields or in gardens at dusk and again at dawn. They can run much faster than a person, and will immediately bound away on their big legs at the first sign of danger, which they will sense coming easily because of their enormous ears.
Though you can find a European rabbit just about anywhere these days, the wild European rabbits of the Iberian peninsula are on the decline. With so much urbanization and agricultural development there is not a lot of room left for the rabbits, and when they come into our fields to eat our crops we tend to take it badly. In addition to hunting the wild rabbits as pests, we also hunt them for food. Rabbits in the wild are also preyed on by anything that likes meat, from birds of prey to wild cats to tiny but ferocious weasels. In the ultimate insult, even squirrels will kill and eat a rabbit if it is injured or otherwise unable to run away.