- Lepus cuniculus Linnaeus, 1758
Value of species
Two recognized subspecies occur on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe. Oryctolagus cuniculus algirus occupies the southwest peninsula (roughly Portugal and southern Spain). Some overlap of ranges exists with O. c. algirus and O. c. cuniculus, which occupies all points north and west of O. c. algirus (Biju-Duval et al. 1991). O. c. cuniculus is thought to be the descendant of early domestic rabbits released into the wild (Gibb 1990), and is now the subspecies that has been introduced throughout Europe and worldwide (Angulo 2004). O. c. algirus is also found in North Africa, Mediterranean and Atlantic islands (Branco et al. 2000).
Original distribution after last ice age included Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to western France and northern Africa, and the introduction throughout western Europe is thought to have occurred as early as the Roman period (Gibb 1990, Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999).
Currently ranges through all Western European countries, Ireland and the UK (including islands), Austria, parts of Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Mediterranean islands Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Crete, the Balearics (Thompson and King 1994), Croatia, and Slovakia (Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999). Introduced to Australia, in 1788 and again in 1859, where it is now widespread (Thompson and King 1994). Introduced to South America unsuccessfully several times since the mid-nineteenth century, successfully in about 1936 where it maintains limited range in Argentina and Chile (Thompson and King 1994). Found in many islands in the Pacific, off the African coast, New Zealand, and the Caribbean (Thompson and King 1994).
O. cuniculus is usually found below 1,500 m in elevation (Fa et al. 1999).
Oryctolagus cuniculus decline has escalated in recent years. In Spain the rabbit has declined to 20% of the population size from 1975 (Virgos et al. 2005). As of 2005, rabbit populations in the Iberian peninsula have declined to as little as 5% of the number from 1950, based on the decrease in Donana National Park, a protected area (Delibes et al. 2000). Density of rabbits has been recorded at a maximum of 40 per hectare in prime habitat, though the abundance has declined significantly since the arrival of new threats in the mid 20th century (Angulo 2004).
In Portugal, a population reduction of 24% was recorded between 1995 and 2002 (Alves and Ferreira 2002).
Decline has been uneven across the range, due to varying degrees of threat (Ward 2005).
Oryctolagus cuniculus prefers a mixed habitat of Mediterranean oak savanna or scrub-forest, or areas with around 40% cover for shelter from predators and open areas that support their diet of grasses and cereals (Thompson and King 1994; Ward 2005). O. cuniculus builds warrens in soft soil, but find shelter in scrub in rocky areas, though predation risk is higher in above ground dwellings. The natural range of the Iberian peninsula and northern Africa is warm and dry (Angulo 2003), rarely occurring above 1,500 m (Fa et al. 1999). The rabbits are territorial and tend to live and forage in colony groups of up to 20 adults (Mitchell-Jones et al. 1999), and are crepuscular (Ward 2005).
O. cuniculus can breed throughout the year (uncommon in lagomorphs), though this is limited by climate and resource availability (Bell and Webb 1991). They raise altricial young between three and six at a time, which leave the warren in under a month (Gibb 1990). Females reach sexual maturity on average in 3.5 months, males 4 months, and can live up to 9 years (Macdonald and Barrett 1993), though many succumb to predation and other perils much earlier. Up to 75% of young rabbits are killed by predators before they establish a territory (Chapman and Flux 1990, Angulo 2004). Annual mortality was 30% in a studied island population (Macdonald and Barrett 1993). The head-body length of O. cuniculus is 34-50 mm (Macdonald and Barrett 1993).
O. cuniculus is a keystone species, composing the diet of over forty species, several of which specialize in O. cuniculus (Delibes and Hiraldo 1981). The diet of the Iberian lynx consists of 80-100% rabbits (Delibes et al. 2000), the Imperial eagle consumes 40-80% of its diet in rabbits, and the decline of O. cuniculus has been linked to the near extinction of these two predators (Zofio and Vega 2000).
O. cuniculus is responsible for landscape modelling that supports vegetation growth typical to Spain and Portugal and creates habitat for invertebrate species (Virgos et al. 2005), increases species richness, and increase soil fertility (Willott et al. 2000).