In this post we look at the history of rabbits. We look at where they come from and originally lived and take a deep dive into how they have evolved into the beloved creatures they are today.
Where did the Rabbit evolve from?
There are fossil records that suggest that Lagomorpha, which is the order that rabbits are placed in, evolved in Asia in the Elcine period around 40 million years ago.
It is thought that as land masses broke up, so did the distribution of hares and rabbits spread throughout the world apart from Australisia.
What makes a rabbit a rabbit?
As Lagomorpha was distributed throughout the world, rabbits evolved into different types and developed different features whilst maintaining similar qualities that they share;
- Their epiglottis is engaged over the soft palate apart from when they are swallowing
- They are nasal breathers
- They have two sets of incisor teeth, one behind the other. This is what distinguishes them from rodents.
- They have powerful hind legs with 4 toes
- They have 5 toes on their front paws with the extra toe called a dewclaw.
- They move around on their toes when running
- They are plantigrade animals whist they are resting
- They have almost a 360 degree vision with a blind spot at the bridge of their nose.
How Rabbits and Rodents are related
They were originally grouped together in the same family as rodents by Carl Linnaeus under the class Glires but were later separated as scientific consensus resolved that many of their similarities with rodents were the result of convergent evolution.
However, there has been a recent discovery of a common ancestor which supports the theory that they have a common lineage.
This has resulted in them grouped in the same super order Glires.
The species of rabbit in the family Leporidae
There are many different species of rabbit which are classified in different genera depending on their features by taxonomists. These genera make up the family Leporidae.
Genus Bunolagus – consists of the Bushman Rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis)
Genus Nesolagus – consists of the Sumatran Striped Rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri) and the Annamite Striped Rabbit (Nesolagus timminsi)
Genus Sylvilagus – consists of the following species;
Forest Rabbit (Sylvilagus brasiliensis)
Dice’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus dicei)
Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani)
San Jose Brush Rabbit (Sylvilagus mansuetus)
Swamp Rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus)
Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)
Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)
New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis)
Mountain Cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii)
Desert Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii)
Omilteme Cottontail (Sylvilagus insonus)
Mexican Cottontail (Sylvilagus cunicularis)
Tres Marias Rabbit (Sylvilagus graysoni)
Genus Poelagus – consists of the Central African Rabbit (Poelagus marjorita)
These species are spread all across the worlds
Where did the domesticated rabbit come from?
There are over 60 recognised breeds of domestic rabbit today and many more that are not officially recognised.
These breeds descended from one species Oryctolagus cuniculus which is the European rabbit. This species of rabbit was the only rabbit to have been domesticated.
Where did European rabbits originally live?
The European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is separate from other species of rabbits and it evolved 4000 years ago on the Iberian peninsula in Spain and Portugal.
Indeed the name ‘Hispania’ (Spain) is translated from the name given to that area by Phoenician merchants, meaning ‘land of the rabbits’.
When Hispania was invaded by the Romans in and around 200BC, they noted how rabbits we’re very good for meat and fur and so farmed them extensively in a practice known as ‘cuniculture’ which involved keeping rabbits in fenced enclosures.
From this they were given the Latin name ‘Oryctolagus cuniculus’ which means ‘hare-like digger of underground tunnels’. This is from their ability to escape these enclosures.
The representation of hares and rabbits in Antiquity
The hare was often prized because of its hunting quarry and was seen as the epitome of the hunted creature that could only survive by breeding heavily. It was known as one of the most fertile of animals and became a symbol of fertility, sexual desire and vitaility.
The hare was used as a symbol of good luck in late antiquity and in connection with ancient burial traditions.
How did rabbits grow in popularity?
With the expansion of the Roman Empire and with trade developing between countries, the European rabbit was introduced to other parts of Europe and into Asia, the Americas and Australia where new populations were introduced and developed.
Their ability to reproduce rapidly saw them increase in populations and thrive in new habitats
The domestication of the wild rabbit
Wild rabbits are said to have been first domesticated in he 5th century in the champagne region of France by monks who bred them as a food source.
They were the first to try selective breeding for fur coats and weight.
Rabbits through the middle ages
Throughout the Middle Ages, farming and breeding of rabbits became widespread and they were increasingly kept as pets. Indeed 15th century paintings show rabbits in many different markings and colours.
Hares and rabbits were often common motifs in the arts as they had many different mythological and artistic meanings in different cultures.
The hare was often linked to moon deities signifying resurrection, rebirth, fertility and sensuality.
It is one of the most famous paintings of an animal found in European art.
Indeed rabbits and hares were depicted like this in both Christian and Secular art enjoying similar meanings to other cultures and civilisations.
Up until the 19th century they were mainly bred for their meat and fur and by the 19th century, the selective breeding of domestic rabbits was becoming more popular resulting in many different breeds and breeding for show was becoming more of a hobby.
The adoption of rabbits as companion pets
With the increase of industry and populations of towns and cities increasing.
Rabbits were increasingly being brought into urban areas as they were often carried with the families who moved into towns being the only farm animal small and practical enough to be brought with them.
The evolution of showing rabbits
By the 20th century rabbit breeding had become a popular hobby with many different new varieties and colours appearing.
With this, new breeding clouds and societies were established to help regulate the standards of breeds.
Throughout the world wars of the early 20th century, both UK and US governments encouraged he breeding of rabbits for meat and fur to help feed themselves and those around them. Fro his they were continued to be popular as pets.
Today they are as popular as ever and are known as he third most popular pet behind cats and dogs.
There is less emphasis on breeding for rabbit meat and fur, and rabbit welfare is more commonplace emphasising the need for an understanding of them.