3 minute read

Lagomorphs

Economic Importance

Wild rabbits and hares of all species are a favorite class of small game hunted by many people for the pot and as sport. These animals are rather fecund and their populations can be quite productive, and they can therefore be harvested in large numbers. Millions of these animals are shot and snared each year in North America. They are mostly hunted for their meat, because the skins of these animals are fragile and tear easily, and therefore the fur has little commercial value.

The populations of rabbits and hares have increased greatly in many areas, because of human activities that have resulted in the elimination of lagomorph predators and in substantial improvements in the quality of the habitat of these animals. Most rabbits and hares of forested regions are early- and mid-successional species. Consequently, these animals benefit from many types of forest disturbances associated with human activities, such as the harvesting of trees in forestry, and some types of agricultural developments. Rabbits and hares are also typically abundant on agricultural or residential lands that have been abandoned, and are in a shrubby stage of the succession back to forest.

Rabbits and hares often do significant damage in gardens, by eating vegetables, and by damaging shrubs of various species, sometimes killing them by eating the bark at the base of these woody plants. This damage can be controlled using fencing, or by protecting the bases of the shrubs with chemical repellants or metal collars. Hares can do considerable damage in forestry plantations, by clipping small seedlings of conifers or other planted trees.

The domestic rabbit has been developed through cultural selection from the old-world or European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). This rabbit often lives colonially and digs extensive systems of underground tunnels and dens, known as warrens, the largest of which can cover more than 2.5 acres (1 ha). The old-world rabbit was originally native to southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa. However, this rabbit is now much more widespread in the wild, because it has been introduced throughout most of western Europe and Britain, the Americas, Australasia, and many other places. The European rabbit often causes severe damage in its introduced habitats by developing large, feral populations that over-graze the vegetation. A deadly disease known as myxomatosis has been introduced in Australia and other countries to try to reduce the population of this invasive rabbit. Although this pathogen generally achieves initial reductions in the abundance of rabbits, the surviving animals are relatively resistant to the disease, so that longer-term control is not generally realized.

Because of selective breeding, domestic rabbits are now available in a wide range of genetically based varieties, which differ in size, shape, color, length of fur, and other characteristics. Many domestic rabbits are raised specifically for food, others are used as laboratory animals, and many others are kept as pets.


Resources

Books

Banfield, A.W.F. The Mammals of Canada. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

McBride, G. Rabbits and Hares. U.K.: Whittet Press, 1988.

Thompson, H.V., and C.M. King. The European Rabbit. History and Biology of a Successful Colonizer. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Bill Freedman

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Cultural selection

—Selection by humans of individual animals having some desirable, genetically based traits, leading to evolution at the population level. This selective breeding eventually results in the development of distinctive varieties of domesticated species of plants and animals.

Lagomorphs

—A widespread mammalian order, consisting of two families, the pikas or Ochotonidae, and the rabbits and hares or Leporidae.

Myxomatosis

—An infectious, usually fatal viral disease of rabbits. Myxomatosis is sometimes introduced by humans to control the populations of rabbits when they become pests. Symptoms of the disease include swelling of the mucous membranes, and the development of skin tumors.

Refection

—The habit of rabbits and hares of re-ingesting their soft, green fecal pellets. Refection allows for a twice-through passage of food, which contributes to more efficient digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Succession

—A process of ecological change, involving the progressive replacement of earlier communities with others over time, and generally beginning with the disturbance of a previous type of ecosystem.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxLagomorphs - Families Of Lagomorphs, Rabbits And Hares Of North America, The American Pika, Economic Importance