In this article we are going to take a look at the history of the domestic rabbit. Finding out all about wild rabbits, and answering the question “where do rabbits come from?”
There is nothing more adorable than watching a new litter of baby rabbit kits hopping around the yard in spring.
You may be surprised to learn that the fluffy bunnies you see bounding with joy are likely quite young. After all, kits become fully independent within only a short four to six weeks.
As you watch the bunnies outside, a few questions may come to mind.
You may want to know exactly where rabbits come from. And how these same fluffy creatures have come to be one of our most adorable and spirited pets.
Keep reading to find out everything you wanted to know about wild rabbit facts.
Helping you to understand all about both domesticated and wild bunnies.
What Is a Rabbit?
To begin our curious adventure, let’s start at the very beginning with the question, what is a rabbit?
Rabbits, like humans, dogs, and a plethora of other animals, are mammals.
Mammals are warm-blooded vertebrate creatures that are covered in hair or fur, and feed their young with milk excreted from the mammary glands.
Mammals fall into many different categories called orders. There are 26 mammalian orders, to be exact.
Rabbits are classified in the order of Lagomorpha. It might sound like a bit of complicated mouthful, but actually it’s got a fairly simple route.
Lagomorpha comes from the Greek words lagos and morphe. Put together these words just mean hare form.
When you break down the classification even further, you have 40 distinctive species.
Rabbits, hares, and pikas make up the different species.
Features of Rabbits, Hares, and Pikas
If you have never heard of a pika, you are not alone. These creatures are not widely known, but they are just as cute as bunnies.
A pika is a small, short mammal that looks like an adorable combination of a squirrel and a guinea pig. The beige colored creatures have big round ears and flat, rabbit-like faces. Believe it or not, pikas call the United States their home, but you probably will not find one if you go searching in your back yard. Pikas live high up in the mountains on the rock faces of steep terrain.
Unlike pikas, you would likely recognize the rabbits and hares that make up the rest of the 40 species within the Lagomorpha order. Rabbits, hares, and pikas do all have similar qualities, and this is why they belong to the same order.
Rabbits, hares, and pikas are herbivores and have large ears and rodent-like teeth that grow continually. One of the most curious aspects of all lagomorphs, including the cute bunnies you see at your local pet store, is the fact that they have highly evolved cardiopulmonary systems.
According to a study conducted by Simmons RS from the University of Utah on lagomorph heart and lung physiology, large hearts are stabilized and supported by the unique, widespread branching of the lung tissues.
This allows the heart to remain healthy and strong when the mammals sprint, hop, lunge, and jump, like they are known for.
In other words, rabbits, hares, and pikas have the hearts of a world-class sprinters and the bodies of acrobats.
Where Do Rabbits Come From?
Now that you know a little bit about the different species of rabbits and hares, you may be curious about exactly where all those cutesy jumping bunnies came from.
Well, we need to go back about 40 millions year. Yes, rabbits are really that old!
40 million years ago is a really long time in the past, but it is not nearly as far back as when the dinosaurs lived.
They were present as far back as 230 million years ago.
Fossil records tell us this and they also show us the age of rabbits and the fact that they first popped up in Asia.
Unfortunately, early rabbit fossils are rare. The mammals have fragile and lightweight bones. While these factors certainly help bunnies bound from one area to the next, the characteristics do not help with fossil preservation.
We do know a few things about the first rabbits to hop the earth though. The hind legs of these rabbits were shorter and their bodies were almost 10 inches long. The ears were shorter as well and the heads were a bit more pointed towards the snout.
The bounding bunnies evolved over time, and sometimes in very unique ways. Lack of resources and other environmental factors are described as the factors contributing to the appearance of the so-called giant rabbit fossils found in Minorca, Spain.
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology describes these rabbits as enormous at over 26 pounds.
Unfortunately, giant bunnies are now extinct. However, the quick, agile, fast-footed, and small varieties thrived.
These wild rabbits are the ones we know and love today, and they can be traced back 4,000 years to Europe.
Rabbits were plentiful and a great source of meat for the Romans. Thanks to the spread of the Roman empire, rabbits became a common sight across the grassy fields and fertile lands of Europe. Of course, this also has a lot to do with a rabbit’s ability to reproduce rapidly.
In The Rabbit Nest
After all, a doe, or female rabbit, can become pregnant in 30 minutes and have a litter every 30 days.
Each litter has an average of six kits, so this means that two rabbits can easily turn into 50 over the course of a year. This is why it is so important to separate your bunnies (unless you want to be eaten out of house and home within a few short years).
As rabbits sprang up all across Europe for decades, 5th century monks in France started keeping the rabbits in cages. The practice was an easy way to keep food on hand at all times, but the monks started experimenting with selective breeding.
Selective breeding is when you identify a positive trait, like size and weight, in a female and male rabbit. When these rabbits produce kits, the baby bunnies are more likely to have those same positive traits.
The selective breeding started by the monks produced some very distinctive breeds of rabbits.
In fact, many of the breeds that we see now can be directly traced back to the selective breeding that occurred early on.
That is shocking, since there are a grand total of 49 unique and recognized rabbit and hare breeds, according to the American Rabbit Breeders Association.
Wild Rabbit Habitat
Our pet rabbits might happily live in hutches in our back yards, but their ancestors lived a much more hidden existence.
Wild rabbits live in burrows. Holes which they have dug underground, connected by a network of tunnels. This network is described as a rabbit warren, and may have dozens of rabbits living in it.
Although rabbits are territorial, they will happily share their space with members of their family group.
Their warrens keep them all warm at night and safe from predators.
What Do Wild Rabbits Eat?
Wild rabbits’ diet varies a little depending upon the time of year, and what is available to them.
Grass is of course a main staple, but they will also eat weeds, wild flower and any vegetables they can get their paws on.
In the cold months when green plants are harder to find, they will also munch on tree bark and anything else they can find with some nutrients.
How Were Wild Rabbits Domesticated?
Selective breeding does account for the fact that the cuddly bunnies we know and love are affectionate and calmer than their wild rabbit counterparts.
However, you probably want to know exactly how wild rabbits were domesticated in the first place. After all, it is not like those European monks suddenly decided to turn their food source into a pet, or did thy?
Scientists have long questioned the idea of rabbit domestication and how the domestication occurred.
In particular, scientists have been curious about the gene differences in wild and pet rabbits, what they area, and how they first started to appear?
What is the Difference Between a Wild Rabbit and a Pet Rabbit?
Up until recently, scientists have had no answers to their rabbit questions. However, thanks to the advances in genome mapping, scientists can now look at the gene sequence of a wild rabbit and how it directly compares to that of the one you call you furry friend.
Scientists have done just this sort of thing at Uppsala University.
Some amazing comparisons were made, and scientists learned that there are very few differences between the genes of a domesticated rabbit and those of a wild one.
However, there are a few noticeable, and important, differences that lie in the brain and nervous systems.
Wild Rabbit Predators
Domestic rabbits have more developed brains and nervous systems.
To be specific, and this has reduced the incredible flight response that helps to keep a wild rabbit safe from predators.
The calming of this response leads to a friendly and calmer rabbit.
This means your fluffy bunny will not bolt for the door if you sneak around a corner a little too quickly. This is good news for you, and your rabbit.
The gene differences were likely selected by Europeans who did decide that they wanted to keep pet rabbits.
Most likely, European ladies decided to keep them as pets as other food sources became abundant.
The friendliest and most docile ones were kept as companions, and these rabbits were bred with equally as calm mates. Voila, domesticated rabbits!
Wild Rabbits – A Summary
Wild rabbits have long lived on the earth and have made quite the journey over the last 40 million years. Even so, there is not a huge difference between the genes of wild rabbits and the cute floppy-eared pet rabbit you may love in your own home. While this is true, you can see the differences in the wide array of different rabbit breeds.
What do you think about the history of bunnies, and would you have liked to see one of those massive “king” rabbits bounding across your yard? Let us know in the comments below.
- Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City 84112, USA. “Lung morphology of cursorial and non-cursorial mammals: lagomorphs as a case study for a pneumatic stabilization hypothesis.” J Morphol. 1996 Dec;230(3):299-316.
- Nuralagus rex, gen. et sp. nov., an endemic insular giant rabbit from the Neogene of Minorca (Balearic Islands, Spain)
Josep Quintana , Meike Köhler & Salvador Moyà-Solà, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 31, 2011 – Issue 2
- Miguel Carneiro, Frank W. Albert, Sandra Afonso, Ricardo J. Pereira, Hernan Burbano, Rita Campos, José Melo-Ferreira, Jose A. Blanco-Aguiar, Rafael Villafuerte, Michael W. Nachman, Jeffrey M. Good, Nuno Ferrand. “The Genomic Architecture of Population Divergence between Subspecies of the European Rabbit.” PLoS Genetics, 2014; 10 (8): e1003519 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003519