Oryctolagus cuniculus 

Scope: Global & Mediterranean
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Lagomorpha Leporidae

Scientific Name: Oryctolagus cuniculus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English European Rabbit
French Lapin de garenne
Spanish Conejo
Taxonomic Notes: 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).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Near Threatened ver 3.1
Year Published: 2008
Date Assessed: 2008-06-30
Assessor(s): Smith, A.T. & Boyer, A.F.
Reviewer(s): Ward, D. & Johnston, C.H.
Oryctolagus cuniculus is a widespread colonizer and is considered a pest outside its natural range, where eradication of the rabbit is priority for conservation (Thompson and King 1994). However, only the natural range of Spain, Portugal, and northwestern Africa (Morocco and Algeria) are considered in this global assessment.

O. cuniculus populations within the natural range have declined an estimated 95% since 1950, and 80% in Spain since 1975 (Delibes et al. 2000), due to disease, habitat loss, and human induced mortality (Ward 2005). These numbers are based on estimates from a protected area in Spain, Donana National Park, and the relative decline elsewhere in the range (Delibes et al. 2000). O. cuniculus nearly meets the Red List Criteria for Vulnerable under A2acde. There is no evidence that the decline has escalated in recent years, though threats remain and the decline is continuing.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description: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).
Countries occurrence:
Algeria; France; Gibraltar; Morocco; Portugal; Spain
Albania; Argentina; Australia (Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia); Austria; Belgium; Bulgaria; Chile; Croatia; Czech Republic; Denmark; Falkland Islands (Malvinas); Germany; Greece; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Luxembourg; Namibia; Netherlands; New Zealand; Norway; Poland; Romania; Russian Federation; Slovakia; Slovenia; South Africa; Sweden; Switzerland; United Kingdom (Great Britain, Northern Ireland); United States
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):1500
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: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).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology: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).
Congregatory:Congregatory (and dispersive)

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): The greatest force behind the decline of Oryctolagus cuniculus has been two diseases that appeared in the 20th century. Myxomatosis is a South American virus, primarily spread by insect (mosquito and flea) vectors, that was intentionally introduced by a farmer in the mid 1950s in France to control the rabbit population (Angulo and Cooke 2002). An estimated 90% of European rabbits have perished due to myxomatosis since the 1950s (Virgos et al. 2005). After symptom onset, death results in an average of 13 days (Ward 2005). Rabbits with the virus are made more vulnerable to predators (Villafuerte et al. 1995). Juveniles are more susceptible to myxomatosis than adults. Myxomatosis cases peak during early summer to fall (Angulo 2004).

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) is a virus that appeared in Europe in the late 1980’s, initially causing the death of 55-75% of rabbits in the Iberian peninsula (Villafuerte et al. 1995). RHD is primarily spread by direct contact. Death typically results within 24 hours of symptom onset, with a short incubation time of under 48 hours (Villafuerte et al. 1995). Adult rabbits are more susceptible to RHD than juveniles (unlike myxomatosis), and RHD is more prevalent in late winter and spring (Angulo 2004). Global warming may increase disease incidence by creating a warmer, drier climate in Spain and Portugal (Ward 2005).

Habitat loss and fragmentation are continuing causes of decline for O. cuniculus, which requires scrub-forest vegetation for food and shelter (Ward 2005). Modern intensive agriculture negatively impacts rabbits more than small scale mixed farming, which may have initially increased suitable habitat within the rabbit’s natural range (Delibes et al. 2000). High intensity livestock production contributes to habitat degradation and resource competition. Fallow farm land often returns to closed forest rather than scrub, which is not a suitable habitat (Ward 2005). Tree plantations planted in Spain and Portugal have replaced habitat for both rabbits and their predators and urbanization presents a threat as does increased fire danger in existing habitat, and climate change (Ward 2005).

Exploitation of O. cuniculus by humans has recently become a threat, especially as the populations are already declining due to other causes, so rabbits cannot sustain hunting and control measures as well as in the past. Farmers control rabbit populations directly by poisoning, trapping, and destroying warrens. They indirectly cause decline through habitat conversion and excessive pesticide and fertilizer use. Hunting presents a threat to rabbit populations, compounded by their existing decline from disease, possibly eliminating many rabbits that have acquired resistance to the diseases (Delibes et al. 2000). 70% of Spain is designated as hunting area. Hunter registration doubled between 1960 and 2005 (Angulo 2003), though the overall catch is declining, probably due to shrinking rabbit abundance (Ward 2005).

Future threats to the European rabbit may include a genetically modified version of the myxomatosis virus being developed in Australia to suppress rabbit fertility where the European rabbit has been introduced (ABC 2003). Unlicensed release of the modified virus to the native range could devastate the remaining populations (Ward 2005).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Conservation for Oryctolagus cuniculus was delayed for several decades after their decline became apparent. Efforts began to take shape in the late 1980's due to previous political isolation of its native range and the lack of information on the species as a keystone to Iberian ecosystems. The issue of eradication of O. cuniculus from introduced areas (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, and many islands) may have diminished the appearance of rabbit decline in its native range. Increased interest in the specialist predators that depend upon the rabbits and the issue of the sustainability of hunting populations have brought O. cuniculus into the public eye, but fail to address some issues of rabbit conservation, such as its role as an ecosystem modeler and the effects of agriculture on populations (Gibb 1990, Ward 2005).

Oryctolagus cuniculus occurs in some protected areas within its natural range, including Donana National Park in Spain (Ward 2005) and Serra da Malcata Nature reserve in Portugal (700 km²) where the Iberian lynx is protected.

Dan Ward's 2005 report outlines specific goals needed to achieve rabbit recovery:
- Establish rabbit monitoring programs to accurately describe decline directly.
- Create and implement a management plan for rabbit recovery that prioritizes critical ranges and populations. Some plans have begun for local regions, including Donana National park.
- Programs to limit the incidence and impact of new and existing diseases may be difficult in the wild, though some success has been observed in captive populations. Current vaccines do not confer total immunity to RHD or myxomatosis, have side effects such as increasing vulnerability to predators, and have short-lived effectiveness. A genetically modified live myxomatosis virus vaccine, LapinVac, is controversial because of the possibility of unpredictable evolution of the virus, and its potential spread to rabbit populations outside the natural O. cuniculus range where eradication, not conservation, is the objective. Increasing habitat quality may indirectly help rabbit disease resistance. Controlling disease vectors for myxomatosis has not been found to be effective. Preventing the spread of modified immunocontraceptive viruses engineered in Australia to control rabbit fertility may become an issue.
- Reducing hunting impact is not guaranteed to reduce decline because disease effects often outweigh hunting as a threat, and because implementation of restrictions would likely not be realistic given the prevalence of hunting in Iberia. Revisions to existing hunting seasons have been proposed and some tested, but even moving the season to summer when rabbits are most abundant has caused concern in trials because the overall catch increases and the season coincides with a peak in death from disease. A growing recognition among hunters of the issue of rabbit decline has led to some self-restraint, and though often well intentioned, uninformed management strategies are leading to inappropriate actions. Rather than focusing on hunting restraint, many hunters exert efforts to reduce rabbit predators, which are not directly responsible for decline. As a very large demographic, hunters could represent a powerful force in maintaining sustainable hunting populations, if the awareness of the issue of decline increased within this group.
- Rabbit populations affected by agriculture represent a sensitive issue, as rabbits are typically seen as a pest and an economic liability for farmers. Despite pressures from environmental groups, many farmers continue to take measures to eradicate rabbits from their land, even in areas where rabbit populations have declined dramatically. Awareness among farmers of rabbit conservation issues is low. Government policy allows farmers to control rabbits with permits, and though crop loss due to rabbit damage is economically subsidized, no requirement of those compensated is made for conservation.
- Halting and reversing habitat loss and fragmentation was aided in the 1990s by the establishment of many national parks in Spain, but much optimal rabbit habitat is on private land. A shift from high-intensity farming and monoculture forestry back to mixed agro-forestry and small scale farming would help sustain rabbit populations. Natura 2000 promotion of sustainable development and EU subsidies supporting environmentally friendly agriculture are promising but underfunded and too new to demonstrate a significant impact. Eucalyptus plantation removal has demonstrated a positive effect on rabbit populations, but may compromise other environmental issues such as erosion and conditioned bird habitat, as well as economic impact.
- Reintroductions have been a key focus of conservation efforts, with up to 500,000 released annually in Spain and France. The efforts so far have not increased rabbit populations, due to increased mortality from predation and inadvertent spread of disease, which may actually have a net negative impact. The flaws in reintroduction practices do not completely negate the importance of the efforts, which have been shown to help sustain predators and hunting populations. The success of reintroductions may be increased by fencing from predators and competitors and preventing dispersal.
- Though rabbit predators have not directly caused rabbit decline, factors that have caused initial decline (e.g. disease, habitat loss) are exacerbated by some opportunistic predators (while not caused by specialist predators like the Iberian lynx and Imperial eagle). Game keeping efforts to increase rabbit populations often focus on predator reduction, sometimes counter productively, causing decline of top predators that are already threatened. Efforts could be more productively focused on habitat protection, reduction of rabbit mortality by humans (hunting and poisoning), and reducing disease impacts.

The importance of O. cuniculus within its natural range requires that it be considered for listing in spite of its global abundance. It is a keystone to the Iberian ecosystem, as prey for specialist predators (Virgos et al. 2005) and as a landscape modeler (Delibes et al. 2000, Ward 2005). It is an important game species in Spain and Portugal (Ward 2005).

Citation: Smith, A.T. & Boyer, A.F. 2008. Oryctolagus cuniculus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T41291A10415170. . Downloaded on 25 September 2018.
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