Rabbits depend on microbes in their intestinal tract to digest their food, and they also eat their own droppings to absorb the nutrients. Smaller than a hare, with shorter legs and ears, the common rabbit is brownish on the upperparts, with buffy-white underneath. The feet are equipped with large, straight claws.
The European rabbit has had a long association with humans, who have prized it for its soft fur and tasty meat. This species was probably introduced to the Mediterranean from its original home in the Iberian Peninsula more than 3,000 years ago. They are often numerous in sandy localities, where they can tunnel easily into the ground to build their warrens. The European rabbits often live in large colonies, inhabiting complex labyrinths of burrows, or warrens, that may have hundreds of entrances. Although European rabbits live in close proximity to one another, there is a strong dominance hierarchy within a warren. Each male defends a territory, especially during the breeding season.
When they were exposed to the deadly disease myxomatosis, however — spread by rabbit fleas — the survivors tended to move out of their burrows and spend longer above ground. Social by nature, European rabbits communicate with each other by banging with their feet. They also scream if they experience pain.
There are as many as 66 domestic breeds of rabbit, and they vary considerably in size, shape and coloration. In Australia, rabbits occurred in such high numbers that they left little food for local marsupials, and even threatened the sheep industry. Diseases have been successfully introduced to control them.
The European rabbits are famed for their rate of reproduction, and a single female has the potential to produce 30 young per year. The female is on heat again 12 hours after the birth, but not all pregnancies last the term, and many embryos are resorbed. Only about 40 per cent of litters conceived are born. On average a female will produce 11 live young in a year.
The adaptable nature of European rabbits has led to them becoming significant pests in some areas. Rabbits have been introduced to some areas, such as Australia, where there are no predators capable of controlling their numbers. In these places they have created huge problems, crowding out local species and destroying crops. Ironically, European rabbit populations in the species’ original range in Spain are too small to support their rare predators such as the Iberian lynx and the imperial eagle.
Distribution: Spread across Europe from the Iberian Peninsula and southern France. Introduced to the British Isles after 1066, and many other countries worldwide, including Australia.
Habitat: Farmland, grassland and dry shrubland.
Weight: 1.5 - 2.5 kg (3 - 5.5 lb).
Length: 38 - 50 cm (15 - 20 in).
Maturity: About 8 months.
Gestation Period: 30 - 35 days; breeds through much of the year, especially in spring.
Breeding: 1 - 14, typically 6; weaning at 28 days; females may have 2 - 3 litters per year.
Diet: Herbivorous, eating grass, herbs and twigs.
Lifespan: Up to 9 years.
The ears are raised when the European rabbit is alert, but they are relatively short compared with those of hares.
The European rabbits are usually brownish-grey, but may have a reddish hue. The underside of the tail is white.
Short legs allow the rabbit to escape into its burrow easily.
The European rabbits will construct an elaborate network of underground tunnels, which may be used over a long period by successive generations.
The European rabbits are sometimes called cottontails, because their white tails look like cotton balls.