Predator Prey. Every ecosystem where rabbits exist needs rabbit predators to control the rabbit population. A lack of balance between predator and prey results in serious consequences.
Our minds know that rabbits are prey animals.
But our hearts haven't got the memo. Many humans have a very hard time viewing rabbits as prey.
Rabbits have baby faces, large eyes and ears, rounded
bodies, and an oh-so-cute button nose. Rabbits exude a sense of helplessness,
which along with their cuteness triggers within us a nearly overwhelming desire
to protect and to love these delightful creatures.
This is despite the fact that we know rabbits are prey animals in the wild. No matter - the very idea that ANYTHING should devour these beautiful rabbits is horrifying to some – a completely understandable reaction.
Nevertheless, let’s steel ourselves for a moment in order to see what real life looks like to rabbits, and especially their role in predator prey relationships.
Rabbits are consummate prey animals capable of multiplying almost uncontrollably. Therefore the species manifests a dark side if the predator prey balance is ignored and the rabbit population explodes.
Whether or not you ever plan to add rabbits to a meal plan, it is important for pet rabbit owners and rabbit breeders alike to understand the big picture and take lessons from the quickly multiplying rabbit.
Rabbit Multiplication: 1 + 1 = 153
Wild European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculi) – our domestic rabbits – have the capacity to breed and multiply at a dizzying pace, depending on the availability of forages within the ecosystem. In springtime when the grass is fresh and young shoots are plentiful, does can breed and bear litters nearly every month.
Whether we like to think about it or not, rabbits ably fulfill their role as prey animals.
Predation of unweaned bunnies is high, perhaps as high as 50 – 75% of bunnies up to age 4 weeks. The average lifespan of a rabbit that survives beyond weaning is just 18 months.
In a study conducted in the 1950’s, researchers calculated the survival rate of 124 rabbits according to age group, as follows:
Out of 124 weaned rabbits in a fenced but open colony…
The vast majority of domestic rabbits
are kept outdoors in various housing situations. Most outdoor rabbits are
either pets, show rabbits or the family’s small meat rabbit herd. The majority
of outdoor rabbits are kept in:
We don’t know where you live, but in our opinion, the rabbit owner will do best to know the major rabbit predators in his area, and ensure his rabbits are securely housed against predation by the local predator prey chain.
(Pictured at right: Raccoon prints on our deck on a damp late evening in mid-October. Raccoons will kill rabbits and chickens in a heartbeat. Since it had no access to our animals, this raccoon was looking for a free cat food handout. These footprints were our warning to be vigilant throughout the hungry winter months.)
Many animals are known to be rabbit predators. The following list of predators only scratches the surface:
Relates rabbit researcher RM Lockley: “I have seen and heard a half-grown rabbit dragging its hind legs feebly and screaming while a stoat was still a dozen feet away and approaching its victim at a gentle amble. This rabbit might already have been diseased, although it seemed to be quite healthy; I rescued it before the stoat reached it, but its eyes were already half-glazed, its heart violently palpitating, and its limbs trembling and uncoordinated. It died within half an hour, apparently of a heart attack on sighting or scenting the stoat.”
This is in accordance with the observations of animal behavior expert Dr. Temple Grandin that rabbits do not fear or sense pain as much as they are terrified of fear itself.
The number of rabbit predators in a locale tends to be governed by the numbers of prey animals.
“To maintain the food-chain of grass-eaten-by-rabbit-eaten-by-predator, all the components must survive in ratio that does not threaten any part with extinction”1.
When the prey population drops due either to reduced forages or disease, the predators fail to breed successfully. In areas with an abundance of prey (rabbits), the breeding rate and the numbers of predators rise sharply.
Predators have a
typically positive effect
on the prey population.
They kill off the weak and the diseased individuals first, generally improving the rabbit colony’s collective genetic gene pool. As RM Lockley observed:
“Those [rabbits] weak enough to become paralyzed at the moment of knowledge of pursuit by a mustelid will automatically be killed or die of fright. The elimination of these weaklings and the survival of the rabbits which are strong or astute enough to escape when so pursued is of benefit to the species; the ability to attempt to escape will be handed down, by instinct or learning or both, to the progeny of the survivors.”
In 1859, the Briton Thomas Austin introduced just 12 rabbits into his estate in SE Australia. What he may not have realized was that there were no natural rabbit predators in the area of Australia where he released the rabbits.
By 1907, a rabbit plague stretched from Australia’s west coast all the way to its east coast – a swath of land roughly 2,500 miles wide and hundreds of miles inland. It was the fastest spread of any colonizing animal in the world12. How bad was the plague? At areas where long fences had been erected to keep rabbits out, the animals would be so thick against the fence that they could climb over one another, breach the fences and access the greenery on the other side.
Without rabbit predators, an unbalanced ecosystem might eventually look like this:
The above picture was taken on Wardang Island along the southern coast of Australia in 1938. Australia is still trying to control a feral rabbit population that numbers in excess of 100+ million.
It is clear through their capacity to multiply that the rabbit was specifically intended to be a main prey animal near the bottom of the food chain in all ecosystems in which they live.
And that is the main difference between our pet dogs and cats, and our pet rabbits.
While rabbits usually give just as much pleasure to their owners as do pet dogs and cats, there is a vast difference between the species. As a consummate prey animal, the rabbit’s status as a pet takes a distant second place to its role as a prey animal both to animal and to human predators.
We have identified many more lessons that pet rabbit owners and rabbit breeders can learn from the predator prey relationship.
Predator Prey Info Source: The Private Life of The Rabbit, by RM Lockley