Rabbits may be one of the most popular small animals to keep as a pet but they have lived in the wild for much longer. Having been domesticated in the 5th century AD, rabbits have become part of our society both for food and as pets. But how long have rabbits been around?
Rabbits have been around for more than 40 million years, with fossils having been discovered from as far back as this. There are thought to be around 40 different species within the rabbit family Lagomorpha, including hares and pikas.
While we may spend a lot of time getting to know our furry friends, not many rabbit owners think about their long and interesting history. So, let’s find out a little bit more about bunnies and where they came from.
When Was the First Rabbit Discovered?
There are rabbit fossils that date back as far as 40 million years so this suggests that they have been around for a very long time. However, they may not have been incredibly widespread for many years and it wasn’t until the year 1000BC that these small animals were first discovered by humans.
This discovery took place in Spain, which at the time, was the only place that rabbits could be found in the wild. For people at that time, the humble bunny was a rather unremarkable creature that didn’t really capture their attention, and certainly didn’t capture their hearts, the way it does with people today.
After the discovery of the rabbit, there have been events that have meant this animal now inhabits massive portions of the world. There is suggestion that, during the shifting of the continents, various species belonging to the rabbit family, such as the hare, were shifted off to different parts of the world. This is why we see things like the Arctic hare and the American pika.
However, when we look at the history of the rabbit, this typically relates to the European rabbit which is now commonly seen in the wild around the world.
Were There Prehistoric Rabbits?
Rabbits that we see today are relatively small animals save for breeds like the Flemish Giant which is known to be the largest, growing up to an average weight of 14lbs. However, if we go back in time a few million years, there are rabbits that are thought to have been double this size!
The fossilized remains of a ginormous rabbit were discovered on the small island of Minorca in Spain. The huge beast is believed to have weighed around 26lbs but unlike modern rabbits, scientists have determined that its skeleton was not built for moving in the same hopping manner that rabbits today exhibit.
Furthermore, research into the animal has shown that it may not have had as finely tuned senses as modern rabbits but perhaps that is to do with its size; who knows?
The Nuralagus Rex, as it was aptly named is thought to have lived up to 5 million years ago but it is believed that this is something of an anomaly. Typically rabbits may not have ever been able to grow quite as big owing to predators. But when living in an island environment, the Minorcan giant may have thrived due to a lack of predatory animals. This is often seen in nature and is known as the island rule.
Are Rabbits Native to America?
The rabbit finds its origins in Europe but during the time that Europeans settled in America, they brought with them lots of rabbits. As a result, there are now millions of wild rabbits inhabiting the Northern parts of America and in some areas, these are a serious problem for farmers and landowners.
There are other countries around the world that have suffered from an influx on non-native rabbits, most notably, Australia. Down Under there is a massive problem with European rabbits which were initially introduced in the mid-1800s for no purpose other than the enjoyment of hunters. However, it is unlikely that the people at the time realised just how quickly these animals can breed and as such, the country is now overrun with unwanted bunnies.
The problem is that Australia has a very unique and delicate ecosystem that rabbits were never meant to be a part of. According to National Geographic, the initial number of rabbits introduced here was 13, and in less than 50 years, this vast continent is filled with rabbits. The Aussie ecosystem has suffered greatly with many native animal and plant species now being in decline.
But the bunnies have all but destroyed farmland and many crops. Moreover, this has led to soil erosion which means that farming becomes much more challenging.
When we think about rabbits moving to America from Europe, it isn’t difficult to understand how they would thrive here. Meadows in both the USA and Europe are very similar so it wouldn’t take the rabbit much to adapt. However, Australia is a diverse land with areas of dry desert and tropical rainforest running alongside one another. But rabbits are also diverse and as such, have had few problems surviving here.
When Were Rabbits Domesticated?
It is believed that rabbits were originally domesticated by monks back in the 5th century AD. Evidence suggests that, at this time, the monks were only located in the South of France, although there are also suggestions that domestic rabbits were also kept along the Iberian Peninsula.
However, while today, the majority of domestic rabbits are kept as animal companions, back in 500AD, the monks kept them for a more practical reason. There was a belief at the time that rabbit meat was, in fact, a type of fish. For the monks, this was important as it meant that, during their Lent fast, they were permitted to eat rabbits.
Off the back of this, the French monks also developed breeding techniques that led them to be able to control the size, weight and even the color of the rabbits. As time went by, more and more breeding methods have been introduced and as such, we now have a huge variety of domestic rabbits that have features that would never normally be seen in wild animals.
While rabbits may have only been kept in domestic situations in France and on the Iberian Peninsula to begin with, the Roman Empire kept growing and this meant that trade between countries expanded with it. As a result, rabbits were soon introduced to other parts of the world and this wasn’t limited to domestic rabbits but for wild rabbits too.
Rabbits are fast breeders, and as such, it wasn’t long before these animals were repopulating around the globe.