Feb 3

Thursday 3 February 2011 is the start of the Chinese New Year and, according to the Chinese zodiac, the start of the Year of the Rabbit.

With nearly one in four rabbits, hares and pikas (from the order Lagomorph) classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List, conservationists are seizing the opportunity to help raise awareness of the many threats faced by rabbits and their relatives.

Habitat loss, overhunting and disease are just some of the major threats currently facing lagomorphs according to the recent IUCN press release, ‘Year of the Rabbit – species hopping out of view?’

Photo of rabbit on hind legs

The European rabbit, from which all domestic rabbits descend, has drastically declined in recent years.

Why are rabbits so important?

Luis Ruedas, a member of the IUCN SSC (Species Survival Commission) Lagomorph Specialist Group and Professor at Portland State University, says that rabbits are considered to be a ‘keystone species’, “They have an effect on the environment that is disproportionate relative to their numbers. Because of this, their decline can have a huge impact on other species.” 

The vital role played by lagomorphs is summarised by Andrew Smith, Chair of the IUCN SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group and Professor at Arizona State University. “Because of their ecological importance as prey, population declines of lagomorphs have led to catastrophic declines in predator species.”

The European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, illustrates this concept perfectly. In its native range on the Iberian Peninsula, European rabbit populations have drastically declined since the 1950s due to the diseases Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Fever, and because of habitat loss, leaving some populations on the verge of extinction. This reduction in rabbit numbers has had an equally dramatic impact on predators in the region, with less prey leading to population declines being observed in the Critically Endangered Iberian lynx, Lynx pardinus, as well as the Vulnerable Spanish imperial eagle, Aquila adalberti. 

The order Lagomorph includes some of the most endangered species on the planet.

The riverine rabbit, Bunolagus monticularis, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. It is now only found in the Central Karoo region of South Africa, where its numbers have fallen by about 60 percent in the past 20 years, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Photo of riverine rabbit

During the last 100 years, over two thirds of the riverine rabbit’s habitat has been lost, and today, only 250 mature riverine rabbits are estimated to exist in the wild.

The Endangered volcano rabbit (Romerolagus diazi) is one of the smallest rabbits in the world. It is endemic to Mexico and is restricted to the central part of the Mexican Transverse Neovolcanic Belt, where the population is under huge pressure from habitat destruction, caused by livestock grazing, agriculture and property development encroachment.

Photo of volcano rabbit in habitat

The Volcano rabbit lives in a very specific habitat type, which is coming under increasing threat of destruction.

Explore more about rabbits, hares and pikas on ARKive.

Read more in the IUCN Press Release or visit the Lagomorph Specialist Group website.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author