From the tip of their twitchy little nose to the bottom of their cute little cotton tails, rabbits have adapted for survival. In the wild, they are widely hunted prey animals, yet somehow this cute, furry creatures have managed to adapt and populate every continent except for Antarctica.
Even though many of us have rabbits as pets now, they still have the characteristics of their wild ancestors to help them live and navigate through life in your home. It’s a fun experiment to learn about the anatomy of a rabbit and what makes them such a great survival species.
Rabbits: the survival species
Rabbits are prey animals and have always been a widely hunted species. To survive, our cute, fluffy friends have had to develop characteristics that give them an advantage over their predators. The key characteristics of rabbits that allow them to survive against all odds include their ability to detect predators and quickly run away to hide. They have heightened senses that help them to sense danger early, and quick feet that help them run and dig to hide underground.
Rabbits also have characteristics that help them survive in many different climates and habitats. Their strong jaws help them to eat various types of foliage, even twigs and bark if they have to. And their ears and nose play an important role in regulating the temperature of their body. These parts of the rabbit anatomy have been essential in helping them survive in new habitats all around the world.
And I have not even mentioned the rabbit’s amazing ability to reproduce yet. It is not a myth that rabbits can multiply like, well… rabbits! They can continue to have babies and grow as a population even when resources are limited and predators abound.
The rabbit nose
The bunny nose and its adorable twitch has the role in helping a rabbit to breathe easier, smell better, and helps regulate the rabbit’s internal body temperature. While only a small part of a rabbit’s overall anatomy, their nose is an important part of the survival and adaptation of the rabbit species.
When a rabbit twitches their nose, it stimulates the millions of scent receptors they have and helps them to smell better. Every twitch temporarily improves the number of scents they can distinguish from a single sniff. That’s why when a rabbit gets curious about something new, you’ll see them start to wiggle their nose faster and faster.
Rabbits can twitch their nose up to 150 times per minute. This excellent sense of smell has, understandably, played an important role in a wild rabbit’s survival. Even if predators are camouflaged and quiet, rabbits can still use their awesome nose to smell them out. This amazing sense of smell can also help rabbits sniff out food sources, even when it’s still growing underground.
A rabbit’s ears play the largest role in regulating their body temperature, but the nose also helps out. The moisture in the air helps the rabbit transfer heat as the rabbit breathes. The mucous in the nasal passage can facilitate this transfer of heat as the rabbit inhales and exhales. In the winter, this can help the rabbit to retain body heat, while in hot weather this can play a vital part in preventing heat stroke in rabbits.
As a result, you may notice a rabbit’s breathing rate increases as the temperature gets warmer. Most rabbits have thick coats that keep their body warm, so breathing rapidly helps to cool them down. Since rabbits don’t have sweat glands the way humans do, this ability to get rid of excess heat through their breathing has been essential to their survival.
A rabbit does not have to wiggle their nose to breathe, but it does help them to breathe more easily. The nose twitch helps the air flow through their respiratory system more easily so that the rabbit will get enough air when they breathe. This is especially important for active rabbits or rabbits that need to run away very quickly. The nose twitch can help them maintain their breathing rate so they can continue running for long periods of time and escape predators who are chasing them.
When they are not active or curious about something, however, rabbit noses can actually come to a stand still. If they are sleeping, for example, a rabbits nose will usually stop completely. They don’t need to expend the extra energy to twitch their nose when it’s not needed.
While most people are aware of a rabbit’s iconic buck teeth, did you know that rabbits actually have 28 teeth. They have the front incisor teeth that are used to slice into vegetation, and they also have back cheek teeth that are used to grind down the tough food in their diet.
A rabbit’s teeth have mainly evolved to accommodate a rabbit’s diet. They slice and chew grasses, twigs, and vegetables very efficiently and continue to grow as the rabbit’s diet wears them down. As a secondary characteristic, rabbit’s also have very strong jaws that can be used to defend themselves in a pinch.
A rabbit’s natural diet consists of grasses, weeds, twigs, roots, and other fibrous vegetation. These foods cause a lot of wear on a rabbits teeth. As a result, rabbits have open rooted teeth. This means that they will grow continuously, like finger nails, so they are never worn down completely by the rough foliage in the rabbit’s diet.
These ever-growing teeth have been great for the adaptation of wild rabbits to many different habitats. They have been able to forage for whatever foliage is available, even resorting to twigs and bark in the winter time. No matter how rough the food it their diet is, the rabbit’s teeth will continue growing and never fully wear down.
For wild rabbits, their ever-growing teeth are a great advantage. But for our house rabbits, this is a characteristic that often becomes a health problem. Overgrown teeth is one of the most common illnesses that domestic rabbits face. These house rabbits typically don’t have as rough a diet as wild rabbits do, so they need extra chew toys to help them keep their teeth trimmed down.
While rabbit teeth have mainly evolved to help them eat the available foods from their surroundings, their strong jaws can also play a role in helping rabbits to defend themselves against predators. Most of the time a rabbit’s first instinct will be to run away from large predators that come after them. However if a rabbit is ever cornered, they will have to resort to fighting. Rabbits are usually gentle animals, but they can be fierce with their strong, piercing teeth.
Rabbit eyes are one of their most interesting features. They are crucial to a rabbits ability to detect predators before it’s too late. Rabbits have an excellent ability to see in the distance, and their eyes have adapted to expand their field of vision and help them be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Rabbits can see in every direction
Rabbits have eyes that are located on the sides of their heads, instead of the front. This feature gives rabbits a panoramic field of vision. Without turning their heads, rabbits can see almost 360º around them. And that includes the area over their heads, to watch for large birds. They are even able to see behind them to detect any predators trying to sneak up. Rabbits only have one blind spot, located directly in front of their nose. Luckily a rabbit’s great sense of smell and their whiskers can help them figure out what’s directly in front of them.
The one downside to having eyes on the sides of their heads is that most of a rabbit’s field of vision is seen through only one of their eyes. This means that they don’t have great depth perception. But rabbits, being the great survival creatures that they are, have an adaptation for this too! Rabbits use a technique called parallaxing. They move their head back and forth to see one object’s movement relative to others. This helps them determine the distance and size of objects in their field of vision.
Don’t need to blink
Rabbits have a thin membrane covering their eyes. It is referred to as the third eyelid, and is a completely transparent membrane. This third eyelid does the job of keeping a rabbits eye moist and shields it from dust and debris, meaning that rabbits hardly have to blink at all. In fact, rabbits only blink about 10 to 12 times in an hour. That’s only once every 5 to 6 minutes!
Blinking less frequently means rabbits can do a better job at staying alert. A rabbit doesn’t have to constantly interrupt their vision by blinking as they scan the area for danger. This membrane also allows rabbits to sleep with their eyes open. Even though rabbits are not fully aware of their surroundings when they sleep, they keep their eyes open because their light receptors will keep working. If anything changes in the light, such as a predator approaching, the signals will reach the rabbit’s brain and they will be able to snap into motion much quicker than if they had their eyes closed.
Keeping their eyes open has a secondary effect. Predators will be less likely to go after an animal that they believe is awake, so a rabbit sleeping with their eyes open can deter a potential attack. By keeping their eyes open, rabbits may convince these predators to go after easier prey.
Can see far away
Rabbits are farsighted and will naturally see objects better when they are far away. Their eyes are built to pay more attention to objects in the distance. This means that a rabbit will be more likely to notice predators and dangers when they are farther away, giving the rabbit precious time to run away. The more time a rabbit has to detect danger and run, the more chance of survival. It’s just another way that rabbit eyes are built for survival.
Close up, rabbits are able to use their great sense of smell and their whiskers to detect food and small objects that could be in the way. So having good near-sight is not as necessary, and isn’t a disadvantage to the rabbit.
Bunny ears are one of the most identifiable parts of a rabbit’s anatomy. They have cute, long ears that help them to hear sounds easily from many different directions. These long ears have also helped in the rabbit’s ability to adapt to new climates. They do a lot of work in regulating the body temperature and preventing heat stroke in rabbits.
One of the two main functions of rabbit ears is to help them regulate their body temperature. With a few exceptions, a rabbit’s ears will have thinner fur than the rest of their bodies to help expose them to the outside temperature.
They have a network of small blood vessels running along the outer ear to help transfer heat out of the rabbit’s body. Rabbit ears are able to facilitate a majority of the necessary heat exchange with their body. The blood vessels will expand on hot days, to give off heat, and contract on cold days, to maintain their body temperatures.
The larger the surface area of a rabbit’s ears, the more heat they will be able to give off to help maintain their body temperature. This is why rabbits that have adapted to live in drier and hotter temperatures tend to have bigger ears. They have a larger surface area on their ears to release more heat and avoid heat stroke.
As you might expect, rabbit ears also have excellent hearing. They can hear high pitched sounds that are completely inaudible to the human ear, and can detect these sounds up to 2 miles away. Understandably, this can be a real advantage when trying to outsmart predators and get away from them quickly.
Even better, rabbit ears have the advantage of directional hearing. Rabbit ears are shaped in a way that can detect sound more loudly in the direction they are pointed. Their ears can swivel completely independently from each other to hear sounds in more than one direction at a time. Each ear can rotate up to 270º. With this ability, rabbits are able to pinpoint exactly where a sound is coming from without moving any other part of their body.
In the wild, most rabbits will have fur that will camouflage them in their environment. Domestic rabbits have been bred to have many different colors and textures of fur, so they no longer have this evolutionary advantage. However, both wild and domestic rabbits shed their fur depending on the season. Like many mammals, they can shed their coats to better survive in both hot and cold environments.
In order to adapt to their environments, rabbits will shed their coats seasonally with the weather. The have four shedding seasons during the year, but will usually only have a heavy molting season twice a year. During these times the rabbit will be shedding their winter or summer coat so they can be prepared for the weather ahead and avoid hyperthermia or heat stroke.
Changing colors with the seasons
Many rabbits have coats that change color with the seasons. Usually this is a subtle difference, but sometimes this coat change can be dramatic, allowing a rabbit to blend in with a snowy background in the winter. For most rabbits, they simply have a lighter shaded coat that can continue to keep them hidden against the underbrush and dirt background.
It’s no secret that rabbit’s can run fast. The muscles in their large hind legs are designed to sprint very quickly and change direction in a single hop, to throw off predators. Being able to run away and hide very quickly has been absolutely essential to the overall survival of this prey animal species.
Cottontail rabbits can run in bursts up to 30 mph, with a hop length of about 1.5 feet. These top speeds are really only made by wild rabbits who’s lives depend on their ability to run fast. In addition, rabbits don’t usually run in a straight line. Most rabbits will zig-zag as they dash through the foliage, trying to lose whoever is chasing them in their mad-dash to escape.
Claws for defense and digging
Rabbits can certainly run very fast, but their feet and claws are also useful for self defense. They have very strong hindlegs and can use them to stomp at anyone who makes them feel cornered. Rabbits can also use their claws, which can be surprisingly sharp, to swipe when they feel scared or threatened.
These claws are also important for a rabbit’s ability to dig their vast networks of underground tunnels. This tunnel digging instinct has been essential to helping rabbits survive in many different climates. Even if they are in a very hot temperature that would cause them to overheat, rabbits can hide in their cool underground tunnel during the heat of the day.
The rabbit tail
While certainly not as important as many other parts of a rabbit’s anatomy, the rabbit tail also has a survival function. It may seem like having a fluffy white cotton tail would make a rabbit more detectable, and therefore put them at a disadvantage, but that’s not necessarily the case. Believe it or not a rabbit’s tail can act almost like a decoy, giving the rabbit precious seconds to escape.
According to the evolutionary biologist Dirk Semmann, rabbit’s white tails are meant to confuse predators. A predator’s eyes will naturally be drawn to the white flag on a rabbits butt as it runs away. But as the rabbit changes direction and hides their tail, the predator will be forced to take a number of seconds to find the camouflaged rabbit again. Sometimes those few seconds are all a rabbit needs to escape and run to safety.
Rabbits can also use their tails to protect their own community. They send soundless signals and commands with a flick of their tail, warning their family group if there is danger in the area.
This has a surprising effect on the survival of the species over the individual. A rabbit can give away their own position by flicking their fluffy white tail against their dark coat. This, as well as rabbit thumping, are two very interesting examples of altruistic animal behaviors that have evolved to save the group rather than the individual animal.
Rabbits are well known for their ability to multiply in a very short period of time. This is not a myth. One rabbit can have a litter of up to 14 baby bunnies (called kittens). And they have a gestation period of only about 30 days. To top that all off, the rabbit can get pregnant again directly after having her babies. This means that a single female rabbit could potentially have 12 litters in a year. That’s a lot of baby bunnies! (and that’s part of why it’s so important to get your rabbit spayed or neutered)
The rabbit’s amazing ability to reproduce has been one of the most fundamental parts of their ability to overtake so many foreign climates and continents. Even with all their amazing characteristics, wild rabbits are up against a lot. With the number of predators hunting them, and the limited resources often available, the life expectation of wild rabbits falls to only 1-2 years.
Rabbit instincts and anatomy certainly have played an important role in keeping them out of the mouths of predators, but that would not be enough if their population couldn’t continue to increase at such a significant rate.
Pet rabbits have a life expectancy of 8-12 years. This number will change a little depending on the breed of rabbit and the quality of care they receive. Wild rabbits have a much shorter life expectancy of only about 1-2 years.
The number one thing you can do to keep your rabbit cool in the summer is take them inside. Keeping them out of direct sunlight and in a cool home can prevent them from getting heat stroke. Other things you can do include:
- Moving them to a basement
- Spritzing them behind the ears
- Giving them cool marble tiles to lay on
- Making sure they have fresh water
- Brushing your rabbit regularly
- Fayez I., Marai M., Alnaimy A., Habeeb M. “Thermoregulation in rabbits.” In : Baselga M. (ed.), Marai I.F.M. (ed.). Rabbit production in hot climates. Zaragoza : CIHEAM, 1994. p. 33-41 (Cahiers Options Méditerranéennes; n. 8). Accessed: ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/c08/95605277.pdf.
- Johnson-Delaney, Cathy, Orosz, Susan. “Rabbit Respiratory System: Clinical Anatomy, Physiology and Disease.” Veterinary Clinics of North America Exotic Animal Practice. May 2011, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cathy_Johnson-Delaney/publication/51155433_Rabbit_Respiratory_System_Clinical_Anatomy_Physiology_and_Disease/links/5b04c36faca2720ba099e21d/Rabbit-Respiratory-System-Clinical-Anatomy-Physiology-and-Disease.pdf.
- Krempels, Dana, Ph.D. “What Do Rabbits See?” University of Miami Biology Department, www.bio.miami.edu/hare/vision.html.
- Krempels, Dana, Ph.D/ “Why Spay or Neuter My Rabbit? Some Scary Numbers” University of Miami Biology Department. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html.
- “Rabbit: Sylvilagus floridanus.” Speed of Animals. http://www.speedofanimals.com/animals/rabbit?u=i.