Rabbit - Encyclopedia

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RABBIT, the modern name of the well-known rodent, formerly called (as it still is in English legal phraseology) Cony,' a member of the family Leporidae (see Rodentia). Till recently the rabbit has generally been known scientifically as Lepus cuniculus, but it is now frequently regarded, at least by systematic naturalists, as the representative of a genus by itself, under the The Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). name of Oryctolagus cuniculus. Some zoologists, indeed, include in the same genus the South African thick-tailed hare, but by others this is separated as Pronolagus crassicaudatus. From the hare the wild rabbit is distinguished externally by its smaller size, shorter ears and feet, the absence or reduction of the black patch at the tip of the ears, and its greyer colour. The skull is I There are no native names either in Teutonic or Celtic languages; such words as German Kaninchen or English cony are from the Latin cuniculus, while the Irish, Welsh and Gaelic are adaptations from English. "Rabbit," which is now the common name in English, was for long confined to the young of the cony, and so the Prompt orium Parvulorum, c. 1440, "Rabet, yonge conye, cunicellus." The ultimate source of "rabbit" is itself unknown. The New English Dictionary takes it to be of northern French origin. There is a Walloon robett. Skeat suggests a possible connexion with Spanish rabo, tail, rabear, to wag the hind-quarters. The familiar name for toasted cheese, "Welsh rabbit," is merely a joke, and the alteration to "Welsh rare-bit" is due to a failure to see the joke, such as it is. Parallels may be found in "Prairie oyster," the yolk of an egg with vinegar, pepper, &c. added; or "Scotch woodcock," a savoury of buttered eggs on anchovy toast.

very similar to that of the hare, but is smaller and lighter, with a slenderer muzzle and a longer and narrower palate. Besides these characters, the rabbit is separated from the hare by the fact that it brings forth its young naked, blind, and helpless; to compensate for this, it digs a deep burrow in the earth in which they are born and reared, while the young of the hare are born fully clothed with fur, and able to take care of themselves, in the shallow depression or "form" in which they are produced. The weight of the rabbit is from 22 to 3 lb, although wild individuals have been recorded up to more than 5 lb. Its general habits are too well known to need detailed description. It breeds from four to eight times a year, bringing forth each time from three to eight young; its period of gestation is about thirty days, and it is able to bear when six months old. It attains to an age of about seven or eight years.

The rabbit is believed to be a native of the western half of the Mediterranean basin, and still abounds in Spain, Sardinia, southern Italy, Sicily, Greece, Tunis and Algeria;. and many of the islands adjoining these countries are overrun with these rodents. Thence it has spread, partly by man's agency, northwards throughout temperate western Europe, increasing rapidly wherever it gains a footing; and this extension is still going on, as is shown by the case of Scotland, where early in the 19th century rabbits were little known, while they are now found in all suitable localities up to the extreme north. It has also gained admittance into Ireland, and now abounds there as much as in England. Out of Europe the same extension of range has been going on. In New Zealand and Australia rabbits, introduced either for profit or sport, have increased to such an extent as to form one of the most serious pests that the farmers have to contend against, as the climate and soil suit them perfectly and their natural enemies are too few and too lowly organized to keep them within reasonable bounds. In North America about thirty species and twice as many geographic races (subspecies) are known, and the occurrence of several distinct fossil forms shows that the genus has long been established. The chief variety is the common grey or cottontail (Lepus floridanus). For, the "jack-rabbit," see Hare.

The rabbit has been domesticated from an early period. Little doubt exists amongst naturalists that all the varieties of the domestic animal are descended from Oryctolagus cuniculus. The variations which have been perpetuated and intensified by artificial selection are, with the exception of those of the dog, greater than have been induced in any other mammal. For not only has the weight been more than quadrupled in some of the larger breeds, and the structure of the skull and other parts of the skeleton greatly altered, but the proportionate size of the brain has been reduced and the colour and texture of the fur altered in a remarkable manner. The lopeared breed is the oldest English variety, and has been cultivated carefully since about 1785, the aim of the breeder being directed to the development of the size of the ears, and with such success that they sometimes measure more than 23 in. from tip to tip and exceed 6 in. in width. This development, which is accompanied by changes in the structure of the skull, depends on breeding the animals in warm damp hutches, without which the best developed parents fail to produce the desired offspring. In colour lop-eared rabbits vary greatly. The Belgian hare is a large breed of a hardy and prolific character, which closely resembles the hare in colour, and is not unlike it in form. Some years ago these rabbits were sold as "leporides" or hybrids, produced by the union of the hare and the rabbit; but the most careful experimenters have failed to obtain any such hybrid, and the naked immature condition in which young rabbits are born as compared with the clothed and highly developed young hare renders it unlikely that hybrids could be produced. Nor does the flesh of the Belgian rabbit resemble that of the hare in colour or flavour. A closely allied variety, though of larger size, is known as the Patagonian rabbit, although it has no relation to the country after which it is called.

The Angora rabbit is characterized by the extreme elongation and fineness of the fur, which in good specimens reaches 6 or 7 in. in length, requiring great care and frequent combing to prevent it from becoming matted. The Angoras most valued are albinos, with pure white fur and pink eyes; in some parts of the Continent they are kept by the peasants and clipped regularly.

Amongst the breeds which are valued for the distribution of colour on the fur are the Himalayan and the Dutch. The former is white, but the whole of the extremities - viz. the nose, the ears, tail and feet - are black or very dark in colour. This very pretty breed has no connexion with the mountains from which it takes its name, but is a variety produced by careful breeding and selection. Though produced by crossing, it now generally breeds true to colour, at times throwing back, however, to the silver greys from which it was derived. The rabbits known as Dutch are small, and valued for the disposition of the colour and markings. The entire body behind the shoulder-blades is uniformly coloured, with the exception of the feet; the anterior part of the body, including the fore legs, neck, and jaws, is white, the cheeks and ears being coloured. In some strains the coloured portion extends in front of the fore legs, leaving only a ring of white round the neck. The more accurately the coloured portion is defined, the higher is the animal esteemed. The silver grey is a uniform-coloured breed, the fur of which is a rich chinchilla grey, varying in depth in the different strains. From the greater value of the fur, silver greys have been frequently employed to stock warrens, as they breed true to colour in the open if the ordinary wild rabbits are excluded. Other colours known, as silver fawn and silver brown, are closely related. A blue breed has been recently introduced. The largest and heaviest of all is the Flemish giant, with iron-grey fur above and white below. Other breeds include the Japanese, with an orange coat, broadly banded on the hind-quarters with black; the pink-eyed and short and thick-furred albino Polish; the Siberian, probably produced by crossing the Himalayan with the Angora; and the black-and-tan and blue-and-tan.

See also HARE, SHOOTING, and COURSING. (W. H. F.; R. L.*)

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