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What are Some Characteristics of Rabbits?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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Rabbits are small, herbivorous mammals with acute sight and hearing. They hide from predators using these characteristics, along with their speed, and often retreat to underground burrows. Together with hares, they make up family Leporidae, and with both hares and pikas, order Lagomorpha (lagomorphs). They are one of the only species of animal simultaneously considered pets, pests, and livestock animals by people in the same culture.

Although they mostly live in temperate areas located in the middle latitudes of the Americas, Europe, and Africa, rabbits can live in a variety of environments. They are also found in India, Sumatra, and Japan. There are 50 species in seven genera, but the Domestic Rabbit has been selectively bred into so many breeds that it gives the impression that there are many more. These animals can be white, brown, gray, or brownish-yellow in color, with the black Amami and two striped black species from Asia being exceptions.

Rabbits are ground-dwellers adapted to gathering food during any time of day (usually mid-afternoon or night) without getting caught by predators such as dogs, cats, and foxes. Their body is adapted for predator avoidance, including ears up to 10 cm (4 in) in length, large, sensitive eyes, and strong hind leg muscles. They mainly eat grass, which is low in nutrients, so they eat their own feces to redigest it and extract all available nutrients. This strategy contrasts with ruminants, which chew a cud to extract nutrients instead.

Unlike hares, to which they are closely related, rabbits are social animals, living in small groups of up to 20 individuals with concrete dominance hierarchies including alpha and beta males. Unlike other mammals, they are relatively silent creatures, signaling only with loud foot thumps during times of alarm or aggression. Instead of using sound, they use scent to communicate information such as group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status, and territory ownership. The Amami species in Japan is another exception here, as it uses a range of auditory calls. Most are members of territorial groups, and will box each other with their front legs during disputes.

The little animals have the capability to reproduce so quickly and consume so much foliage that they are sometimes considered pests. The standard example is that of the European rabbit in Australia, which has displaced many native species. Being marsupials, native Australian mammals tend to have a slower metabolism than placental mammals, and therefore find it difficult to compete. Australian rabbit populations have been kept in check with aggressive culling operations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What distinguishes rabbits from other small mammals?

Rabbits are known for their distinctive long ears, which can be as long as 10 cm (4 inches), and powerful hind legs adapted for bounding leaps. They have a specialized digestive system with a cecum that allows them to process cellulose from plants, and they practice coprophagy to absorb nutrients fully. Unlike rodents, rabbits have two sets of incisor teeth.

How do rabbits communicate with each other?

Rabbits communicate through a variety of methods including body language, vocalizations, and scent marking. They thump their hind legs as a warning signal, use subtle movements of their ears and nose to indicate interest or concern, and emit soft vocalizations like purring when content. Scent glands under their chin allow them to mark their territory and objects.

What is the average lifespan of a rabbit?

Domestic rabbits typically live between 8 to 12 years when properly cared for, which includes a balanced diet, regular veterinary check-ups, and a safe living environment. Wild rabbits have a shorter lifespan due to predation and harsher living conditions, often living only 1 to 2 years according to wildlife statistics.

What kind of diet is essential for a rabbit's health?

A rabbit's diet should consist primarily of high-quality hay, which aids in their digestive process and teeth wear. Fresh vegetables and a limited amount of fruit can provide essential nutrients, while commercial pellets can supplement their diet. It's crucial to provide clean water at all times and avoid foods high in sugar or carbohydrates.

How do rabbits reproduce and how often?

Rabbits are prolific breeders and can reproduce several times a year. A female rabbit's gestation period is about 28-31 days, and she can give birth to a litter of 1-14 kits, with the average being 6. They can become pregnant again shortly after giving birth, leading to a high potential for population increase in optimal conditions.

Are rabbits social creatures, and do they live in groups?

Rabbits are inherently social animals and often live in groups in the wild, forming complex social structures within warrens. Domestic rabbits also seek social interaction and can form strong bonds with their owners or other rabbits. They require attention and mental stimulation to prevent boredom and depression, which can be provided through interactive play and companionship.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By anon348846 — On Sep 20, 2013

Obviously whoever says rabbits are illegal in Australia has no idea about Australia. I live in Sydney and yes they are legal. They have vets who specialize in rabbits too. Only in Queensland they are illegal.

By anon336468 — On May 28, 2013

Pet rabbits are allowed in Australia except in the state of Queensland.

By anon247433 — On Feb 13, 2012

I would like to make a couple of points on your article:

1. Unless things have changed very drastically in the last decade, it is illegal to have pet rabbits in Australia (I know for certain none can be brought in). When rabbits were introduced to the country by ships from Great Britain, within 50 years or so, they almost completely decimated the country. They were not merely culled. All means possible were used to destroy the hoards were tried until a rabbit-killing virus was introduced to Australia, killing millions of rabbits (myxomatosis). An unfortunate footnote is that myxomatosis was also accidentally introduced to Europe, killing off much of its rabbit population. If I recall correctly, there have been a few cases in the eastern US, but there is an inoculation available in both the US and Europe. My books are all old, but last I knew, the anti-virus was also illegal in Australia.

2. Rabbits do not specifically eat their feces. The hard, round pellets left behind are their feces. Usually around dawn and dusk, rabbits exude cecotropes (house rabbits adjusted to family hours can do this at any time), which is usually eaten directly from the body. If left behind, they *can* look sort of like a tightly packed bunch of grapes, but in a litter box or cage, usually wind up as a lump of gooey mud (often mistaken for diarrhea) with a foul odor. As rabbits get older, sick, or have other balance problems, etc., these cecotropes can get caked on their bottoms, causing the rabbit to smell bad, and, if left alone, to harden and cause severe problems for the rabbit.

Anyway, the rabbit needs to eat these, as they are the result of previously digested food and contain certain vitamins that the rabbit needs to stay healthy. In fact, in certain instances, if one rabbit falls ill, it is common to take cecotropes from a healthy rabbit to give to the sick one. It's a common mistake to think they eat their feces, leaving some people to think rabbits are "dirty" animals.

I just wanted to clear that up, didn't mean it to be so long-winded! --bionicbunny

By anon243220 — On Jan 26, 2012

This really helps with my school project! Thanks for the info!

By abundancer — On Mar 07, 2011

I love rabbits! We used to have one as a pet. They are very trainable, ours would go outside like our dog. Sometimes, I think he thought he was a dog. He would do tricks and follow my baby brother around like he was protecting him. They are very loyal and loving also.

By anon147524 — On Jan 29, 2011

great! thanks for the info!

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics,...

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