rabbit

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

rabbit

rabbit, name for herbivorous mammals of the family Leporidae, which also includes the hare and the pika. Rabbits and hares have large front teeth, short tails, and large hind legs and feet adapted for running or jumping. In most, the length of the ears is considerably greater than the width. Although usage varies, the term rabbit generally refers to small, running animals, with relatively short ears and legs, which give birth to blind, naked young, while hare refers to larger, hopping forms, with longer ears and legs, whose young are born furred and open-eyed. Rabbits are chiefly nocturnal, although they are sometimes seen in the daytime. They have acute senses of smell and hearing. They feed on a wide variety of vegetation and are responsible in many areas for the stunted nature of the ground cover. When feeding on green herbage, rabbits, like hares, excrete soft pellets which they reingest; the waste products of the redigested food are excreted as dry pellets. Wild rabbits are frequently infected with tularemia, which is dangerous to humans.

The European Common Rabbit

The European common rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is native to S Europe and Africa, but is now found, in its domestic varieties, throughout the world; wild varieties have also been introduced in some places, such as England. All domestic rabbits, including the so-called Belgian hare, belong to this species. Wild common rabbits are up to 16 in. (41 cm) long and usually weigh 2 to 3 lb (0.9–1.4 kg). They have soft, thick fur, usually grayish brown above and white below. The tail is usually carried upright when the animal runs, exposing the white undersurface. Common rabbits live in elaborate systems of adjoining burrows called warrens. The young are suckled in a special burrow, dug by the mother at a distance from the warren and lined with a nest of her own fur. The entrance to this burrow is plugged with earth when she is away. Domestic rabbits, which may be various colors but are commonly white, are bred for food and for their fur, which is much used in making fur trim and felt. They are also frequently used as laboratory animals and are kept as pets.

New World Rabbits

The New World genus Sylvilagus includes the many species of cottontail rabbit, which resemble the European rabbit in appearance, as well as the marsh rabbit and swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris and S. aquaticus, respectively), of the S United States. These rabbits do not burrow, although in winter they may shelter in a burrow abandoned by another animal. They usually rest, like hares, in hollows which they make in the ground or in vegetation. The Idaho pygmy rabbit, Brachylagus idahoensis, of the U.S. Great Basin, digs simple burrows. The many North American species called jackrabbit are actually hares, as is the snowshoe rabbit, or varying hare. There are several species of short-eared rabbits in Asia and one, the volcano rabbit, or Mexican pygmy rabbit (Romerolagus diazi), in central Mexico, where it is in danger of extinction.

Reproduction

The reproductive rate of rabbits is notorious. The common rabbit breeds from February to October; its gestation period is 30 days and there are five to eight young in a litter. In most regions its numbers are kept down by its many predators, such as the fox, the badger, and birds of prey. However, when domestic rabbits escaped in Australia, where they had few natural enemies, they ran rampant and stripped the countryside of vegetation in many regions. They were brought partially under control by the artificial introduction of a viral disease, myxomatosis.

Classification

Rabbits are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Lagomorpha, family Leporidae.

Bibliography

See S. Lumpkin and J. Seidensticker, Rabbits (2011).

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