Oryctolagus cuniculus Linnaeus, 1758
Common names: European Rabbit [En], Lapin de garenne, Lapin commun [Fr], Konijn [Nl], Kaninchen [De], Coniglio [It], Conejo [Sp], Αγριοκούνελο [Gr], Avrupa ada tavşanı [Tu]
IUCN Status : NT (Near Threatened) within its natural range (Iberian peninsula)
Invasive species (Australia, New Zealand)
Meise, BRABANT ● Belgium
Etymology: Oryctolagus derived from the Greek word ὀρύκτης | oryktes, meaning digger, and from the Greek word λαγώς | lagos, meaning hare. Cuniculus is the latin name for rabbit, which comes from Ancient Greek κύνικλος | kýniklos, probably of Iberian origin; original meaning “burrow”.
Description: The coat is normally greyish-brown, but can range from sandy yellow to totally black. The belly and underside of the tail are white. Rabbits are smaller than hares, and have comparatively shorter legs. Males (bucks) and females (does) are similar in appearance, but bucks tend to weigh more and have slightly broader heads. The head-body length is 34-50 mm (Macdonald and Barrett 1993). Rabbits move by hopping, using their long and powerful hind legs. To facilitate quick movement, a rabbit's hind feet have a thick padding of fur to dampen the shock of rapid hopping. Their toes are long, and are webbed to keep from spreading apart as the animal jumps.
Biology : The rabbits are territorial and tend to live and forage in colony groups of up to 20 adults (Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999), and are crepuscular (Ward 2005).
O. cuniculus can breed throughout the year (uncommon in lagomorphs), though this is limited by climate and resource availability (Bell and Webb 1991). They raise altricial young between three and six at a time, which leave the warren in under a month (Gibb 1990). Females reach sexual maturity on average in 3.5 months, males 4 months, and can live up to 9 years (Macdonald and Barrett 1993), though many succumb to predation and other perils much earlier. Up to 75% of young rabbits are killed by predators before they establish a territory (Chapman and Flux 1990, Angulo 2004).
Habitat: Oryctolagus cuniculus prefers a mixed habitat of Mediterranean oak savanna or scrub-forest, or areas with around 40% cover for shelter from predators and open areas that support their diet of grasses and cereals (Thompson and King 1994; Ward 2005). It builds warrens in soft soil, but find shelter in scrub in rocky areas, though predation risk is higher in above ground dwellings. The natural range of the Iberian peninsula and northern Africa is warm and dry (Angulo 2003), rarely occurring above 1,500 m (Fa et al. 1999).
O. cuniculus is a keystone species, composing the diet of over forty species, several of which specialize in O. cuniculus (Delibes and Hiraldo 1981). The diet of the Iberian lynx consists of 80-100% rabbits (Delibes et al. 2000), the Imperial eagle consumes 40-80% of its diet in rabbits, and the decline of O. cuniculus has been linked to the near extinction of these two predators (Zofio and Vega 2000).
O. cuniculus is responsible for landscape modelling that supports vegetation growth typical to Spain and Portugal and creates habitat for invertebrate species (Virgos et al. 2005), increases species richness, and increase soil fertility (Willott et al. 2000).
Distribution: Original distribution after last ice age included Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to western France and northern Africa, and the introduction throughout western Europe is thought to have occurred as early as the Roman period (Gibb 1990, Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999).
Currently ranges through all Western European countries. It was introduced to Australia, in 1788 and again in 1859, where it is now widespread (Thompson and King 1994). It was also introduced to South America unsuccessfully several times since the mid-nineteenth century, successfully in about 1936 where it maintains limited range in Argentina and Chile (Thompson and King 1994). It is found in many islands in the Pacific, off the African coast, New Zealand, and the Caribbean (Thompson and King 1994).
Threats and protection: The greatest force behind the decline of Oryctolagus cuniculus has been two diseases that appeared in the 20th century. Myxomatosis is a South American virus, primarily spread by insect (mosquito and flea) vectors, that was intentionally introduced by a farmer in the mid 1950s in France to control the rabbit population (Angulo and Cooke 2002). An estimated 90% of European rabbits have perished due to myxomatosis since the 1950s (Virgos et al. 2005). After symptom onset, death results in an average of 13 days (Ward 2005).
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is a virus that appeared in Europe in the late 1980’s, initially causing the death of 55-75% of rabbits in the Iberian peninsula (Villafuerte et al. 1995).
Habitat loss and fragmentation are continuing causes of decline for O. cuniculus, which requires scrub-forest vegetation for food and shelter (Ward 2005). Modern intensive agriculture negatively impacts rabbits more than small scale mixed farming, which may have initially increased suitable habitat within the rabbit’s natural range (Delibes et al. 2000).
Hunting presents a threat to rabbit populations, compounded by their existing decline from disease, possibly eliminating many rabbits that have acquired resistance to the diseases (Delibes et al. 2000). 70% of Spain is designated as hunting area.
O. cuniculus populations within the natural range have declined an estimated 95% since 1950, and 80% in Spain since 1975 (Delibes et al. 2000), due to disease, habitat loss, and human induced mortality (Ward 2005). These numbers are based on estimates from a protected area in Spain, Donana National Park, and the relative decline elsewhere in the range (Delibes et al. 2000). O. cuniculus nearly meets the Red List Criteria for Vulnerable under A2acde.
Efforts in conservation actions must be focused on habitat protection, reduction of rabbit mortality by humans (hunting and poisoning), and reducing disease impacts.
IUCN Red List
The Mammal Society. Mammal Factsheets, 2002.
Wikipedia, European Rabbit