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Rabbits/Difference between wild North American rabbits and wild rabbits from England


QUESTION: This isn't an urgent question but one I have been thinking about for a long time.  I've read Watership Down several times, which deals with a group of wild rabbits that inhabit England. There, wild rabbits live in social groups called warrens,unlike wild rabbits in North America who are solitary. Why do they do this when they are basically the same species?

ANSWER: Dear Nathan,

Actually, they are not the same species.  Wild rabbits in North America are in the genus Sylvilagus, and are commonly called cottontails.  There are at least a dozen different species.  The most common in your area is Sylvilagus floridianus, the Eastern Cottontail.

The wild rabbits in Europe and the British Isles are Oryctolagus cuniculus, the same species as our domestic rabbits (domestics were derived from wild European rabbits).  

Cottontails are somewhat social (they congregate, but don't form warrens), but not as social as Oryctolagus.  Oryctolagus build warrens in which an extended family group will live and interact with the fluctuating hierarchies you read about in Watership Down.  Domestic rabbits will do ths if allowed to go feral (which they often do in the U.S., unfortunately).

We also have hares (Lepus species) in both North America and Europe, but these, too, are different species from each other.  None of the hares burrow, and their main mode of escaping predators is RUNNING!

I live with three different species of lagomorphs (cottontails, jackrabbits (hares), and domestic rabbits), and it's fascinating to see how they interact with each other.  Each species is entirely different, and they sort of treat each other as foreign exchange students.  :)

Hope that helps.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Do you know of any specific areas that are populated with feral rabbits here in the US? Are they pictures or studies about them?

Dear Nathan,

There are lots of different feral rabbit colonies throughout the U.S.  A famous one is still reproducing on the campus of Long Beach City College, California.  

At the moment, one of our chapters--I think it's Colorado, but I'm not sure--is dealing with rabbit raising situation gone bad, in which the owner just let the bunnies loose and they're all over the neighborhood, eating plants, digging burrows, dying in people's yards (because they have no veterinary care), etc.  There's another in northern California on an enclosed property that's off limits to the public, and the jerks who own the place won't let rescuers come in to save the rabbits, and they are slowly starving to death as the food runs out.

Almost anywhere people have abandoned rabbits with regularity, some will survive and start to settle in.

Don't know of any studies being done on them, nor pictures.  But it's a sad situation that should not be allowed for the suffering it causes.

Domestic rabbits cannot generally survive well in the wild, just as wild rabbits do not thrive in captivity.



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Dana Krempels, Ph.D.


I've lived with companion rabbits for more than 35 years, and consider them members of my family. I can answer any questions about the biology and health of rabbits, from the commonplace to the unusual. But please note:

RULE #1:

Find a rabbit vet at for immediate help, and don't risk your bunny's life by spending time asking questions online! If you can't get in touch with your vet, read these Emergency Sick Bunny Instructions.

If you have found a wild baby rabbit, please read these EMERGENCY INSTRUCTIONS FOR WILD BABY RABBITS and then use this link to FIND A LOCAL WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR who can give you the right advice.

RULE #2:
Help me help you! Please make your subject line informative if you have an urgent question. then LET ME KNOW IN THE SUBJECT LINE so I can give your question highest priority over non-urgent questions. If you don't do this, then I can't guarantee timely assistance!

For all the best, most accurate rabbit health, care and behavior information, visit The House Rabbit Society.


I have been rescuing and rehabilitating domestic and wild rabbits for about 30 years. I have written articles for many rabbit rescue publications, as well as for the veterinary journal, Exotic DVM. I own EtherBun, the internet's largest listserve dedicated to health, care, and behavior of domestic rabbits.

Houserabbit Adoption, Rescue, and Education, Inc. (H.A.R.E., Inc.) president National House Rabbit Society (Board member)

Exotic DVM
Warren Peace (Journal of the House Rabbit Society of Miami)
Various newsletters of the House Rabbit Society, nationwide

Ph.D - Biology
B.S. - Biology
B.A. - English

Awards and Honors
Lightspan Academic Excellence Award for web site on rabbit health and biology

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