Behavior & Anatomy

Rabbits spend their life trying not to attract the attention of predators. They may, at times, appear shy, bold, or even curious, but a rabbit's "true nature" is to be cautious and careful. [50] They have large eyes located on the upper part of the sides of their head that have a 360 field of view, except for a blind spot at the tip of their nose. Their eyes are limited in terms of depth perception and close-up vision. Instead, the rabbit's vision system is designed to pick up any kind of movement at a far distance. [51] [52] They are constantly aware of potential predators on the ground and in the sky. [53] Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. This is part of their survival strategy since at twilight it is too bright for the nocturnal predators to see well, and too dark for the diurnal predators. [54] [55] They may also be active at night and during the day, but bright light restricts the aperture of the pupils, decreasing visual acuity. Intense light can actually blind a rabbit. Their eyes are composed of a double retinal system of rods and cones that are especially sensitive to the blues and greens present at twilight. [56] [57] [58]

Rabbits have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. It moves across the surface of the eye, offering protection and lubrication. [59]

A rabbit's eye.
A rabbit's eye.
Image Source: Adam Greig / License under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

As with other herbivores, rabbits spend a great deal of time either feeding in the open or re-ingesting caecal pellets under safe cover. [60] Rabbits will usually graze close to their burrow. [61] Their teeth grow continuously, as they are "open rooted". The modified incisors act like a chisel cutting instrument, clipping off vegetation before it is passed to the back of the mouth for grinding. Their teeth grow at a rate of 3.9 to 4.7 inches (10 to 12 cm) per year. The anterior side (the side you see) of the incisors has a layer of enamel which causes it to wear more slowly than the posterior side, which has no enamel. During the course of wear this forms a natural chisel profile, keeping the teeth sharp. The lower teeth grow faster than the upper teeth. [62] [63] As they feed, they drop fecal pellets which fertilize the plants they eat. [64] Rabbits are hind-gut fermenters, designed to digest low quality, high fiber food such as grass. Unlike other fermenters, rabbits have a high rate of flow through their digestive tract. This minimizes the need to store and carry food that is being processed, and results in a small, lightweight, and fast moving animal. [65] But their digestive system is also highly efficient, discarding large particles and collecting small particles for fermentation and nutrient extraction. This efficiency minimizes the time that rabbits must spend above ground exposed to danger while feeding. [66] Rabbits will eat almost any vegetation they find, including leaves, shoots, herbs, grasses, grains, leaf buds, bark, stems, branches, and vegetables such as lettuce, beats, carrots, and of course cabbage. [67] They are responsible for the stunted nature of ground cover in many areas, because of the wide variety of vegetation they can feed on. [68] Rabbits are rarely found in damp areas, or above the tree line. They prefer free draining loose soil with cover. [69] The European rabbit, for instance, prefers such areas as fields, meadows, bushs, or small forests. [70] As many farmers have found out, hedgerows make an ideal habitat for rabbits. [71] North American rabbits do not dig burrows as European rabbits do. Instead, they have shallow fur-lined nests on the surface of the ground called "forms". These rabbit forms are well concealed in dense vegetation. [72] European wild rabbits, on the other hand, live in a series of underground tunnels called a warren. [73] One recorded case in Europe said that a single warren had 450 rabbits with 2000 entrances! [74]

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Rabbits are territorial but live in a loosely organized society. [75] The female hierarchy within the warren is separate from the male hierarchy. While fighting is used to establish the hierarchy's order, it is rare in an established colony. Exceptions to this rule are fights over receptive females, and empty burrows. [76] Rabbit behavior is not flamboyant and overt, but quiet and heavily reliant on scent. [77] They are born with this sense of smell and it allows them to find their mother's nipples so they can feed. 100 million sent cells form a nasal membrane with movable folds that assist in the detection of scent. They twitch their nose up and down to help identify a scent. This is called "nose blinking." They use this highly developed sense of smell to identify predators and other rabbits. [78] Rabbits mark their territory with droppings that are given an individual scent from glands in the anus. They also use scent glands under the chin, either side of the perineum (inguinal glands,) and at the anus (anal glands) to demonstrate ownership of property such as burrow entrances. Inguinal glands are large pouch-like glands that usually contain a yellow/brown oily deposit. [79] [80] Does are often more territorial than bucks, and can get aggressive towards other rabbits that enter their territory. [81] Aboveground sentry rabbits will sit upright on their haunches, allowing them to see further. When a possible predator threatens, the sentry rabbits will thump the ground loudly with his hind legs. When the other rabbits out in the open hear the warning, they will either flatten themselves on the ground and hide, or run for cover or the safety of the burrow. On occasion, in defense of their burrow or nest, rabbits have been known to fight tooth and nail. [82] [83] Both bucks and does will kick, bite, and spray urine as a defensive gesture when threatened. [84] A rabbit running from a predator will only run in a straight line for a short distance before bouncing to the side. [85] When pursued for longer distances, rabbits will run in wide circles. The desert cottontail, for instance, will run in a circle that is approximately an acre in size. [86] As a rabbit runs, it emits scent from between its toes. The scent becomes weaker as the rabbit tires, which can actually be sensed by some well trained hunting dogs. Pregnant females have very little scent as a form of natural protection from predators. [87] A good time to look for rabbits is on the first warm day after a cold snap. They often will be sitting out in the open, soaking up the sunlight. On cold and windy days, they will either be in their burrows or in thick tangles of vines, briars, and any other cover that protects the rabbit from the elements. [88]

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Written by Samuel Fall
Copyright © 2008 Rabbit Pictures & Facts

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Image Source for Eastern cottontail at top of page: William R. James, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Image Source for cottontail at bottom of page: Clinton & Charles Robertson / License under Creative Commons 2.0.