History of Rabbits and People

The domestic rabbits we have today are all descendants of the wild European
rabbit. The wild European rabbit (Oryctolagus) began developing some 6.5
million years ago and developed in Europe’s Iberian Peninsula. By 12,000 years
ago, humans were hunting rabbits as a source of food. The Phoenicians referred
to rabbits in the Iberian Peninsula about 1000 BC. Rabbit domestication is said
to have begun at this time.

Rabbits were raised in ancient Rome for meat and pelts. The Romans also are thought to have selectively bred an Angora rabbit for its long hair to be used for
yarn. During the Middle Ages, French monks practiced selective breeding in
rabbits to maximize the desirable traits such as size and coat color. Rabbit pelts
and meat were a valuable food and clothing source in monasteries. From this
start, different breeds were developed slowly until the 18th and 19th centuries,
when breed development took off to the point that there are currently more than
100 breeds of rabbits worldwide.

The European wild rabbit is the only species of rabbit that has been
domesticated. In some parts of the world, the European wild rabbit is still a pest.
Twenty-four such rabbits introduced into Australia in 1859 grew to 600 million
rabbits in the course of a century and became destructive pests in the country. All
breeds of rabbits kept today as pets, raised for fur, and kept for meat are the
result of careful selective breeding of the European wild rabbit.
Domesticated rabbits are typically much larger than the original European wild
rabbit. The European wild rabbit is usually a small animal, about 13 to 18 inches
long and weighing just 3 to 5 pounds. They are gray-brown color. Domesticated
rabbits today have been bred selectively to be much larger in most cases. They
come in many colors and color combinations. Where the European wild rabbit
has long ears that stand straight up, domestic rabbit breeds might have pendulous
or “lop” ears that hang down beside their faces, or they may have long ears that
stand straight up.

Despite their legendary reproductive abilities, the European wild rabbit has a
precarious existence in some places in Europe due to predators and urbanization.
As a species, they are “near threatened” in Portugal,” one of the places where
they originated, and “vulnerable” in Spain. Because of their declines in
population, the World Conservation Union has labeled the European wild rabbit
as “near threatened” in its native area.
Today, Italy and France maintain a relatively high demand for rabbit meat and
lead the world in rabbit production.

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