A rabbit’s ears can be like air-conditioners. Along with providing an excellent range of hearing, long rabbit ears also have a large surface area, which helps with body cooling.
Where at the Zoo
Wells Fargo Family Farm
Dam: mother of a litter
Herd: group of domestic rabbits
Kindling: giving birth
Litter: group of kits born to one mother
Length: 8-36 in.
Rabbits are small, furry mammals with large rear feet and short, fluffy tails. Using their powerful rear legs, rabbits hop, run in spurts, and rapidly change direction. Humans raise rabbits as pets, or for meat and fur. Domestic rabbits are descended from wild Old World, or European, rabbits.
What They Eat
Where They Live
What They Do
How They’re Doing
The Minnesota Zoo is home to a small herd of domestic rabbits. Visitors may be allowed to pet and feed rabbits in the Rabbitry with help from Zoo staff and volunteers. Visitors may also peek into nest boxes to see litters of newborns, or kits.
Meet the Animals
The Zoo’s domestic rabbits belong to the Holland Lop, New Zwland White and Rex breeds. Of the three, Rex rabbits are considerably larger. The Rex rabbit’s velvet-like fur is short and upright.
Care at the Zoo
Rabbits at the Zoo are cared for from birth. Kits (baby rabbits) are very vulnerable. Does are transferred to nest boxes inside their hutches a little less than 1 month after breeding and before giving birth, or kindling.
Nest boxes are filled with soft materials, such as clean, dry hay and straw. The doe will burrow, forming a warm nest in the box. She will line the nest with fur pulled from her chest and belly.
Zoo staff make sure that nest boxes stay clean, replacing soiled bedding. They ensure that kits are warm and dry.
Kits are born without fur, and with their eyes closed. Unlike their hare cousins—born with fur and with eyes open—kits cannot hop shortly after birth.
Kits eat feed pellets and drink water once they leave the nest box. But they will continue to nurse until they are about 8 weeks old.
Weaned male and female kits are separated. Females are able to breed even before they are fully grown. Most female and male kits born at the Zoo are sold shortly after weaning.
What’s a Breed?
The herd at the Minnesota Zoo contains three domestic rabbit breeds: New Zeland White, Holland Lop and Rex rabbits.
So Many Kinds
Still more breeds are prized as pets. This is true of the Zoo’s Netherland Dwarfs, the smallest breed of domestic rabbit.
Rabbits are also bred for fibers that can be harvested from their coats. Long-haired Angora rabbits produce wool that can be sheared or plucked by hand, then spun into soft, warm yarn.
Specific breeds are created to reinforce or enhance certain traits. New Zeland Whites for example, are bred for meat.
The Rex rabbit is a medium to large rabbit that may weigh as much as 10 ½ pounds. The Rex breed was developed primarily for its coat. Exceptionally short guard hairs—the same length as the undercoat hairs—give this breed a velvety feel.
There are about 16 different varieties of Rex rabbits, based on color and pattern. Solid colors include black, black otter, blue, Californian, castor, chinchilla, chocolate, lilac, lynx, opal, red, sable, seal, and white. Broken, or spotted, patterned rabbits are also common. Because of their unusual coat structure, Rex rabbits require regular grooming to avoid matting of fur.
The Rex breed was developed from common gray rabbits in Europe in the early 20th century. In 1919, Désiré Caillon of France began breeding rabbits that showed a short-hair mutation. These rabbit remained hairless for an unusually long time. Caillon selected indivduals for further breeding, eventually developing short-haired rabbits. A local abbot continued the work, naming the new breed Castor Rex—or Beaver King—in honor of the rabbit’s luxurious coat.While originally prized for its pelts, the Rex is now more often raised as a pet or for meat.
New Zealand White Rabbit
If you want to know more about domestic rabbits, look no farther. This Rabbit Handbook contains general information on domestic rabbits and specifics about rabbits at the Wells Fargo Family Farm.
Both wild and domestic rabbits are small mammals belonging to the scientific order Lagomorpha. Originally rabbits were classed with rodents, such as hamsters, rats, and mice, in the order Rodentia. But there are enough differences between rabbits and rodents that rabbits eventually got their own grouping.
Many of those differences are inside the mouth. Rabbits have more sharp upper teeth than rodents do: two pairs of upper incisors rather than the rat’s single pair. These incisors grow continuously.
Like humans and some other animals, rabbits have both baby teeth and permanent teeth. Rodents have only one set of teeth for life.
The order Lagomorpha consists of two families: Ochotonidae, for hamster-like animals called Pikas, and Leporidae, the family of wild and domestic rabbits and hares.
Rabbits differ in important ways from hares. Rabbits are born nearly helpless—blind, deaf, and without fur. In contrast, baby hares are precocial. They are born with fur and open eyes. Hares can run and hop shortly after birth.
Rabbits are generally smaller than hares. The hare’s ears are larger than those of a rabbit and have black tips.
Rabbits are found around the globe and have adapted to a wide range of climates and habitats. Wild Swamp rabbits of the American Southeast are semi-aquatic. These rabbits have adapted to a marshy environment by becoming good swimmers. Worldwide, there are 49 species of rabbit. Of those, 17 live in the United States.
Minnesota is home to one native wild rabbit species, the Cottontail. Cottontails live across the Americas from southern Canada to Argentina and Paraguay. Minnesota is also home to two of the rabbit’s cousins: the showshoe or varying hare and the jackrabbit. (In spite of its name, the jackrabbit is a hare, not a rabbit.)
Domestic rabbits are descended from the Old World rabbit, a wild species from Europe still hunted for meat. Both wild European rabbits and domestic rabbits belong to the genus Oryctolagus, and the species cuniculus. (The word cuniculus means “rabbit” in Latin.)
Records exist of rabbits being kept by people to be used as food some 3,000 years ago. Over the centuries, as people traveled, they brought rabbits with them. Phoenician traders from the Eastern Mediterranean brought rabbits to Europe about 3,000 years ago. During the Roman Empire, the Ancient Romans frequently took rabbits with them as a food source, further spreading the animal’s range. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 A.D., rabbits traveled to England.
Monks living in European monasteries are thought to have begun the process of domesticating these Old World rabbits in the early Middle Ages. But rabbits were not truly domesticated until the 1500s.
Today, nearly 50 breeds of domestic rabbit exist. Domestic rabbits are different from their wild counterparts. After centuries of having been tamed by humans, they have smaller brains and bigger hearts. Senses that would normally be needed to survive in the wild—such as keen eyesight, hearing, and taste—are not as developed in domestic rabbits.
Domestic rabbits also behave differently than wild Old World rabbits. The domestic rabbit is a social animal but can live on its own as a pet. In contrast, its wild European ancestor lives in warrens, or colonies of linked underground tunnels and dens. While domestic rabbits will burrow, or dig, they do not create warrens.
In both domestic and wild rabbits, the female is normally larger than the male—unlike most mammalian species, where the reverse is true. Domestic rabbit does, or females, have a flap of fur-covered skin under the chin called a dewlap. Does tug fur from the dewlap before giving birth in order to line the nest.
In the wild, rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain. They are the common prey of eagles, foxes, badgers, and humans. Their status as prey animals has shaped both wild and domestic rabbit behavior.
Rabbits have long back legs that allow them to hop and run quickly when pursued. The soles of their feet are covered with hair, adding cushioning when rabbits jump and hop to evade predators.
Rabbits also have long ears that can move in the direction of sounds. In this way, rabbits hear when predators are near and quickly flee.
A rabbit’s eyes are located high on the sides of its head, giving it a wide range of vision, particularly up and to the sides. Rabbits have a blind spot, however, in the front of their faces. For this reason, humans should not offer their hands to a rabbit to sniff, as they might to a dog or cat.
Rabbits are prolific animals, which has helped them maintain large populations, even in the face of predators. In the wild, does may have 2-6 litters of 3-6 kits during the February to August breeding season.
Domestic rabbits tend to reproduce year round. One doe may bear as many as 50 young in a single year. Depending on the breed, rabbits can breed beginning at the age of 4 months. Does are capable of mating again as soon as their kits are weaned. And in nearly every case, mating results in pregnancy.Gestation (pregnancy) lasts about 1 month, or 30-33 days. Babies are born altricial, or nearly helpless, without fur and with eyes closed. They will grow in a fur-lined nest, opening their eyes about 10 days after birth and growing fur gradually. Domestic rabbit kits are weaned at the age of 5-8 weeks.
Rabbits are raised for many purposes. They are used as pets, raised for wool, eaten as meat, prized for their pelts, and used in scientific research.
Domestic rabbits, such as the small Netherland Dwarf breed, are prized as a source of companionship when kept as pets. Long-haired Angora rabbits are raised for fiber that can be made into warm, soft woolens.
Larger rabbits, such as New Zealands and Champagne D’Argents, are raised for their meat. This meat is an important source of protein in many parts of the world.
Rabbit meat is all white meat. It is lower in fat and higher in protein per pound than chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, or pork. Worldwide, France is the leading producer and consumer of rabbit meat.
Rabbit pelts and parts are used for furs, fertilizers, toys, and novelty items. Fur from rabbits can also be made into felt for hats and other products.
In scientific laboratories, domestic rabbits are used to aide research into the causes and treatments for diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and asthma.