Leporidae: Rabbit and Hare Family

Found in forest, shrubby vegetation, grassland, tundra and on mountain slopes in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, the rabbits and hares are an extremely successful family of small herbivorous mammals. The common rabbit has been introduced in Australia and New Zealand, where it has proved itself to be remarkably adaptable. Compared with pikas, the 47 or so species of rabbit and hare have become highly adapted for swift running, with disproportionately well-developed hind limbs. They also have long, narrow ears and small tails. Their teeth are adapted for gnawing vegetation - they have chisel-shaped upper incisors (which grow throughout life) for biting and large cheek teeth for chewing.


Size: 35 cm (14 in); 0.7 - 1 kg (1.5 - 2.2 lb).

The tapeti, or forest rabbit, ranges from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. It lives around the edges of the Amazon Basin. As well as tropical forest, this species also inhabits scrublands such as the Chaco of Paraguay. The tapeti is nocturnal and feeds on low-growing forest plants.

Marsh Rabbit

Marsh rabbits are cottontail rabbits that live throughout the south-eastern United States, from Virginia to the tip of Florida. This region is characterized by wetlands, especially around the Mississippi Delta. Marsh rabbits live in these swamps and bogs, and also near deeper and faster-running bodies of water.

These rabbits build platforms of rushes and other aquatic vegetation to hold their dens. Marsh rabbits swim regularly, and will also hide from danger in water. They never stray far from solid ground, since they are often forced to take cover in the thick undergrowth that grows along the banks.

Compared to other cottontails and hares, marsh rabbits have short, rounded ears.

Despite their semi-aquatic lifestyle, marsh rabbits forage on land at night for bark and leaves. They eat their hard pellets to extract as much goodness as possible from their tough food. Marsh rabbits are solitary, but when it is time to mate the males organize themselves into a hierarchy by fighting each other.

Distribution: South-eastern United States.

Habitat: Swamps and waterways.

Food: Bark and leaves.

Size: 35 - 45 cm (14 - 18 in); 1 - 2 kg (2.2 - 4.75 lb).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: 6 litters of 2 - 8 young produced spring and summer; gestation is 30 - 37 days.

Life span: 5 years.

Status: Endangered.

White-sided Jackrabbit

White-sided jackrabbits occur from southern New Mexico into central Mexico. They live in the high plateaux that are common in this region. These uplands are covered by dry grasslands, with a few shrubs also growing.

White-sided jackrabbits are crepuscular, (active at dawn and dusk), but they are also at large on cloudy days and bright, moonlit nights. They tend to occur in male-female pairs, and this pair bonding is most evident during the breeding season.

Female white-sided jackrabbits are slightly larger than males. In winter, the white areas of fur darken into a dull grey. The black line down the lower part of the back also fades at this time of year.

When threatened by a coyote or another predator, this hare initially leaps straight up in the air and extends its hind legs to flash its white sides. This behaviour is meant to startle the attacker and give the jackrabbit a chance to flee. If successful, the hare makes its escape with high bounds, propelled by its long hind feet

Distribution: New Mexico and north-western Mexico.

Habitat: Grassy plateaux.

Food: Grasses and sedge.

Size: 43 - 60 cm (17 - 23.5) 2 - 3 kg (4.5 - 6.5 lb).

Maturity: 2 years.

Breeding: 2 - 3 young born in spring or summer.

Life span: 5 years.

Status: Lower risk.

Sumatran Striped Rabbit

Range: S.W. Sumatra.

Habitat: Forested mountain slopes at 2,000 - 4,600 ft (600 - 1,400 m).

Size: Body: 14 1/4 - 15 3/4 in (36 - 40 cm) Tail: 1/2 in (1.5 cm).

The only member of its family to have a definitely striped coat, it has buffy-gray upperparts with brown stripes and a line down the middle of its back, from nose to tail. The tiny tail and the rump are reddish, while the limbs are grayish-brown.

This unusual rabbit is now extremely rare, even in areas where it was once abundant, because of large-scale clearance of its forest habitat for cultivation.

Primarily nocturnal, spends the day in a burrow, but it is believed to take over an existing hole, rather than to dig its own. It feeds on leaves and stalks of plants in the forest undergrowth.

Riverine Rabbit

Size: 43 cm (17 in); 1.65 kg (3.75 lb).

The riverine rabbit inhabits a small part of South Africa. It lives among the scrub that grows along the seasonal rivers of the Karoo Desert. For much of the year the river bed is dry at the surface. If there is any water, it flows through the deep sandy bed. When the rains come, the river is flooded with a rush of water. This flood provides the habitat's plants with most of the water they get all year. The riverine rabbit survives by feeding on the succulent salty plants that grow along the banks. The vegetation is similar to what might grow in a salt marsh close to the sea. It is endangered by virtue of having such a specialized lifestyle. The species' low numbers are not helped by the fact that females produce only one baby every year, which is highly unusual for a rabbit. This is probably because the harsh environment makes it tough to feed more young.

Bunyoro Rabbit

Size: 47 cm (18.5 in); 2.5 kg (5.5 lb).

Bunyoro rabbits live in several small populations across Africa. Most are found in the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa. The largest population is in southern Uganda, but other populations are found as far north as southern Sudan and west as northern Angola. Despite its name, this species is actually a hare, although its short legs mean that it is often mistaken for a smaller rabbit. Bunyoro rabbits eat grasses and roots and are nocturnal.

Swamp Rabbit

Range: S. C. USA: Georgia to Texas.

Habitat: Marshland, swamps, wet woodland.

Size: Body: 17 3/4 - 21 1/2 in (45 - 55 cm). Tail: 2 1/4 in (6 cm).

The robust, largeheaded swamp rabbit takes to water readily and is an expert swimmer and diver. It swims to avoid danger when pursued and also to reach islets or other new feeding areas. With its large, splayed toes, it also moves easily on damp, muddy land. Unlike most rabbits, the males and females of this species are about the same size.

Swamp rabbits build nests of dead plants and fur at ground level. Mainly nocturnal, the swamp rabbit emerges from its shelter beneath a log or in a ground hollow at any time of the day after heavy rain and feeds on grass, herbs and aquatic vegetation. It may also forage in grain fields, where these are near swamps. Although usually docile, rival males will attack each other in ferocious, face-to-face fights, sometimes inflicting serious wounds. They maintain territories by calling to intruders and marking their areas with scent.

A litter of 1 to 6 young, usually 2 or 3, is born, after a gestation period of about 40 days, in a shallow depression in the ground lined with grass and fur. The young are born furred, and their eyes open a few days after birth. There are thought to be two litters a year.

Pygmy Rabbit

Range: N.W. USA: Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, N. California.

Habitat: Arid areas with sagebrush.

Size: 21 - 27 cm (8.5 - 10.5 in); 200 - 450 g (7 - 16 oz).

These rabbits live on an arid plateau in the north-west of the United States. Pygmy rabbits are related to cottontails, but they are about half the size. They dig burrows under thickets of sagebrush - the only North American rabbit to do so - and move through a network of runways above ground.

The only member of its genus, this small rabbit has thick, soft fur and short hind legs. It lives in a burrow that it excavates itself and does not often venture far from its home. During much of the day, it rests up in the burrow, emerging at dusk to feed on sagebrush and any other available plant matter. Its main enemies are coyotes and owls, and if alarmed, the pygmy rabbit takes refuge in its burrow, which usually has 2 or 3 entrances.

Litters of 5 to 8 young are born between May and August.