Everyone probably knows the fact that rabbits are mammals. However, these cute creatures have far more complex systems than they actually appear. Like most mammals, rabbits give birth to their young ones, who complete most of their development in the mother’s womb and feed on the mother’s milk afterward.
In addition, their brain is more complex and highly developed than most other animals. But do you know how these complex animals are categorized in the class of mammals?
Being unable to take care of themselves when born, some people think rabbits are marsupials. Their close similarity with the rats forces people to think of them as rodents.
But are rabbits marsupials or rodents? What category they are put into, and why are they categorized in such a manner. Read the information below to get answers to these questions.
What Family Do Rabbits Belong to?
For a long time, rabbits have been considered rodent family members. Many people confuse them with marsupials as well. While answering any question that has been controversial, one should examine and analyze all the aspects of that matter.
Before assigning any group to rabbits, let’s go through all the groups that have the highest probability of accommodating rabbits, their characteristics, and representative members one by one to see which group is the best for them.
Of course, the taxonomists have already assigned them a particular group, but let’s see why they cannot be considered marsupials or rodents.
Are Rabbits Marsupials?
The rabbits are generally thought to be marsupials for many reasons. Like a kangaroo, a marsupial, rabbit babies are born altricial. The young ones, when born, are deaf and blind. They are unable to move by themselves.
Even there is no fur on their bodies to provide them protection from atmospheric heat and cold. The immature babies are helpless and powerless and are incapable of taking care of themselves.
A kangaroo joey is born the same way. It is extremely small, having the approximate size of a Lima bean. The underdeveloped baby finds the nipples in the mother’s pouch and starts feeding on them.
The mother’s body gives him protection even after he is born. Because both of these animals are underdeveloped and immature when born, they may be considered the same. But unlike kangaroos, rabbits are not marsupials.
They may relate to some extent, but the rabbits’ group is entirely different from marsupials.
What Are Marsupials?
Marsupials are the mammals that belong to the infraclass Metatheria. In general, mammals are usually classified into three groups. Placental mammals (Eutheria) give birth to a completely developed newborn, while egg-laying mammals (Prototheria) start and complete their baby’s development outside the mother’s body.
Pouched mammals (Metatheria) have characteristics intermediate between the above two infraclasses. These animals do give birth to a baby. Still, it’s immature, whose development is then completed outside the mother body in a pocket (called marsupium) located at the mother’s lower belly. Due to this characteristic, they are also called marsupial mammals or marsupials.
They are native to Australia and New Guinea. Some are herbivores, while some are carnivores. Many of them live on land, some burrow underground, some live entirely in trees, and some are gliders.
Most common examples include kangaroos, koalas, wombats, wallabies, opossums, Tasmanian devils, macropods, bilbies, etc. The red kangaroo is the largest living organism listed as a marsupial.
How Do Rabbits Differ From Marsupial Mammals?
Rabbits are not marsupials. They are placental mammals and far more developed as compared to marsupials. For example, marsupials have less developed brains than that of rabbits; it is much smaller relative to the overall body size. Besides this, it differs in the following characteristics:
Birth of a Baby
Unlike a marsupial, who give birth to an immature baby, rabbits have a different case. The rabbit kitten is developed except its fur that develops later. As a result, it’s very rare for a rabbit mother to give premature birth.
Moreover, a young rabbit is on its own after three weeks of its birth. On the other hand, a marsupial can’t be independent till the 6 to 8 months of its birth. It’s entirely dependent on its mother during these months.
Absence of Marsupium
Rabbits lack the pouch located at the marsupial mother’s lower belly. Instead, it’s a pouch that has nipples through which the young baby gets its nutrition. Domesticated rabbits keep their infants warm in a hutch while wild rabbits build a nest and surround it with their fur.
Rabbits are obligate herbivores feeding on hay, grass, and leafy greens. They don’t even eat insects. Contrary to them, along with eating fruits, seeds, and leaves, many marsupials are insectivores and carnivores as well.
Like some other mammals, rabbits are coprophages. When the animals eat their own poop, the process is called coprophagy. Zoologists explain a number of different reasons why animals do coprophagy. Some explanations conclude with a result that they maintain their intestinal flora, in which case rabbits retake vitamin D from their waste.
Some discussions have also concluded this act of coprophagy, stating that the animals keep their nest clean in this way while some do it out of boredom.
Well, whatever the case is, coprophagy has not been seen among marsupials. They just feed on some plants and insects.
They Can Burrow but Can’t Glide
Rabbits can burrow underground like a marsupial, such as a wombat, but they can’t glide like a sugar glider or a feathertail glider – both of which are marsupials.
They Don’t Live on Trees
Don’t confuse a bunny climbing a tree with a marsupial living in a tree. Living and climbing have a great difference. You can easily find wild rabbits climbing trees or pet rabbits climbing stairs or fences.
It is because of their innate nature. They know they are the prey and have to climb to escape predators, but they are entirely terrestrial and live on land.
Are Rabbits Rodents?
There is a lot of controversy about the classification of rabbits. Some early taxonomists put these small mammals in Rodentia and other rodents. In fact, until the early twentieth century, rabbits and hares were classified under the order Rodentia.
But history is not the one to blame; the lack of inventions, discoveries, studies, and resources led to this confusion.
Rabbits are not rodents. The modern taxonomy backed by molecular and phylogenetic study puts the rabbits and hares in a different class rather than placing them along with rodents. They have revealed that rabbits share common characteristics more with primates(like humans) than rodents.
Although some superficial features are common in both groups, rabbits and hares are different from rats, guinea pigs, mice, and squirrels.
What Are Rodents?
Rodents comprise the majority of the class Mammalia, about 40% of mammals are all rodents. These mammals are categorized into a different group appertaining to the single pair of ever-growing rootless incisor teeth in each of the upper and lower jaws. Both the rabbits and rodents show continued development of both the upper and lower incisors called indeterminate growth.
Top incisors, as well as the ones tucked in the lower jaw, grow continuously. Back teeth don’t show any indeterminate growth. However, both the back teeth of the upper and lower jaw show definite growth. Feeding them fibrous plant matter can help them wear down their continuously growing front teeth.
There is a list of some common rodents we all know, which includes mice, rats, prairie dogs, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters, etc. Most rodents have small and tough bodies, long tails, sharp incisors to gnaw food, and short legs. Most of them excavate burrows as a part of their natural defense against predators and are usually herbivores.
How Do Rabbits Differ From Rodents?
Just like moles and hedgehogs, rabbits are also often confused with rodents. Although the rabbits are very similar to rodents, they now constitute a different order rather than being a part of Rodentia. All the rabbits and rodents are placental mammals (Eutherians).
It means their offspring complete their life cycle in the mother’s womb and are fed later through the mother’s mammary glands. The breeding cycles are short in both rabbits and rodents, and there are shorter gestation periods.
Apart from these, there is also another similarity between the two, and that is Litter, the live birth of many offsprings from the same mother at the same time.
Due to these similarities, they were placed together in the order Rodentia for the number of years. The phylogenetic studies also show that these share a common ancestor and may have developed as a result of convergent evolution.
However, there are also several differences between rabbits and rodents, which describe the fact that they are distinct from each other. Some of these differences are listed below:
Rodents lack canine teeth. There is a space between rodent incisors and flat teeth at the side of their mouth for chewing and grinding the food before pushing it towards the stomach. Unlike rodent teeth, rabbits have peg teeth. These are irregular, yet sharp teeth are present behind the top incisors.
Keep in mind that peg teeth among human teeth are due to a dental disorder, while in rabbits, they occur naturally.
Rabbits have more teeth than rodents. Rabbits have two sets of incisors, while rodents have only one. Usually, the second set of rabbit incisors is tucked in the upper jaw and is hidden behind the main front teeth.
Rodent teeth have a harder enamel on the outer surface and soft dentin at the back. The soft dentin is often degraded during gnawing, exposing the teeth to an iron-rich enamel pigment, resulting in orange incisors.
Although most rodents have plant food as their main menu, search for their diet, and you will know that a few rodents are omnivores, such as rats and mice, which implies that they eat meat in addition to plant foods.
However, it is not the case for rabbits; they are obligate herbivores and strictly adhere to a diet plan consisting entirely of plant products.
Rodents usually have long tails, while rabbits have short tails. In the case of rodents, many species do have a hairy (or furry) tail, while others have a completely bald one. However, a rabbit’s tail has fur on it and seems very soft and fluffy.
The main function of a rodent’s tail is to control body temperature. Many rodents, such as rats, don’t sweat, so they use their tails to regulate the temperature.
It is done through blood vessels; they dilate their blood vessels in the tail during hot weather to maximize heat loss and constrict these vessels in cold weather to maximize heat retention. They also use it to keep their balance. On the other hand, a rabbit’s tail is specifically designed to dodge its predator.
It has a lighter portion underneath, which can be seen easily when a rabbit runs. It helps in distracting the predator animals and brings a pretty good time for rabbits to escape. A wild rabbit uses its tail to signal its companions when it suspects any danger, while a pet rabbit wags it for showing emotions to its owner.
Like rabbits, rodents, guinea pigs, and chinchillas are also coprophages, which means they eat their own poop. But there are many differences in how their digestive tract accepts and processes food.
For example, rabbits have a gall bladder while rodents lack a gall bladder. Instead, rodents have an enlarged caecum; it is a blind pouch located at the mouth of the large intestine.
In addition, rabbits have a single-chambered stomach, while rodents can have a single as well as a double-chambered stomach.
Both have different gut bacteria. According to a study conducted in China in 2019, 37 genera of core bacteria in mice (rodents) were found. Out of these bacteria, Anaerostipes and Parabacteroides are widespread.
Similarly, a rabbit has a great amount of microflora in its gastrointestinal tract. But the dominant bacteria include Streptococci and Enterobacteria.
Rodents have baculum bones (penis bones), while rabbits do not. Penis bone in rodents allows the rapid erection of a male’s penis. Penis bone is an evolutionary trait that permits rodents to mate faster and for longer periods of time.
Therefore the absence of this bone structure in male rabbits’ genitalia causes slower erection and shorter mating period. Baculum bones are also absent in marsupials and higher placental mammals like humans, horses, dolphins, and whales.
Another major difference between rabbits and rodents is that a female rabbit becomes sexually mature after three to eight months of their birth. However, rodents mature sexually much faster, almost three to seven weeks after their birth.
Are Rabbits Lagomorphs?
Yes! Rabbits are lagomorphs. The old classification system put the rabbits and hares in the order Rodentia. Still, the modern classification system has put the rabbits and hares in the order Lagomorpha (from the Greek words: “Lagos” meaning “hare” and “morphe” meaning “form”).
This mammalian order has two living families. One is the Leporidae family, which consists of rabbits and hares. The other is the Ochotonidae family, which consists of pikas.
The Pika family consists of about 29 species, and the Leporidae family consists of 30 species of hares and 28 species of rabbits.
This arrangement of rabbit species in the order Lagomorpha is based on the modern studies of taxonomy and evolution, and genetics, which reveal that rabbit is more closely related to rodents but has distinguishing features that make them largely different.
What Are Lagomorphs?
Lagomorphs are terrestrial that live on land and are herbivore mammals. They have a small to medium body size and look like large rodents from their appearance. But they are very different from rodents which you will probably know by the end of this section.
Lagomorphs are tetrapods, i.e., they have four limbs in total:2 forelimbs and 2 hindlimbs. They commonly have a short tail, but pikas show exceptions here. They have a degenerated tail that is not apparent from the outside. Zoologists also call it a buried tail.
They have a flap of skin that is folded on lips. It meets behind the incisors. It enables the lagomorphs to gnaw or chew their food with the mouth cavity closed. They are endotherms that mean they can maintain their internal body temperature through metabolism.
They mostly have long and strong hind legs, but pikas show a bit of dissimilarity in skeletal features and have shorter and weaker hind legs compared to other members of the group. They produce two types of feces, soft and hard. Soft feces have 5 times greater vitamin content in contrast to hard feces.
These mammals reingest their fecal matter and are known as coprophagous.
The mother lagomorph gives birth to the newborn while visiting the nest once a day. Yes, a baby lagomorph gets fed by the mother once per day. He is on his own after he’s weaned in a month. Their milk is nutritious, and the babies grow fastly.
After a month, they get out of the nests covered with lagomorph fur. They have a high reproduction rate and produce many litters per year; it is considered a special trait of this group. Their incisors show continued development.
They have long ears except for pika, who again shows a difference in skeletal features possessing short and round ears.
Lagomorphs have great ecological importance. They are found at the beginning of the food chains and webs. They serve as food for secondary, tertiary, and other higher consumers.
How Are Rabbits Lagomorphs?
A rabbit exhibits almost all the characteristics of a lagomorph described above. A female rabbit gives birth to babies, covers them with rabbit fur to keep them warm, and ends up visiting the nest once a day.
They are herbivores with hay and grass as their main food. Some domestic rabbits also have fruits and vegetables as their pet food. The plant food is necessary to wear down their teeth that grow nonstop.
A small fluffy tail, large ears, teeth specialized for gnawing, a fast-breeding rate, long hind limbs to which strong hind feet are attached for hopping, coprophagy – in short, the never-ending list of special lagomorph characters described above are found in rabbits.
Commonly kept as a pet is a European rabbit. Due to its docile and gentle nature, the European rabbit makes a good family pet. It gets attached to the owner in no time.
Which Other Mammals Are Lagomorphs?
There are two other animals included in the Lagomorpha. These are the hares and pikas, along with rabbits, make up the two families of Lagomorphs. Pikas and hares share a common lineage with rabbits and have similar genetic makeup, but a few physical features may differ slightly.
Hares and rabbits are so similar that people confuse them often. But hares are larger than rabbits and have never been kept as pets. A hare’s gestation period is 42 days, but that of a rabbit is 30-31 days.
Leverets or baby hares are furred and able to see from the time they are born; the rabbit kitten, on the other hand, is usually born naked and is unable to see. Unlike hares, rabbits live in burrows.
Hares and rabbits have elongated bodies and are larger in size, while pikas are smaller and are more chubby with spherical bodies. Rabbits and hares have long hind legs, but pikas have short legs.
Hares and rabbits have short bushy tails and large ears; pikas, on the other hand, have a negligible tail which is invisible on the outside; their ears are prominent, although not as prominent as those of hares and rabbits.
Some Frequently Asked Questions:
Are Rabbits Intelligent?
Yes! Rabbits are quite intelligent creatures. They are, in fact, way smarter than you think. They can learn tricks and are capable of employing reasoning to solve different problems. As they are prey animals, their minds are always full of ways of defending themselves; therefore, they are quick at observation.
They are also able to learn some human words. Their remarkable memory can be estimated from the fact that they don’t forget bad experiences easily. They have mood swings and show emotions. These cute little creatures even react to different signs and cues and can solve puzzles.
You can make them learn their names, and they will come hoping towards you when you call them. They can sometimes recognize their owners from their voices.
Are Rabbits Fast Breeders?
Like rodents, rabbits are widely known for their breeding rates. They are fast breeders and have a gestation period of about one month. Does mature sexually at the age of 3 to 8 months, and once mature, many of them give birth to more than one litter in a year, and each litter contains up to 12 youngs.
The female rabbits can continue reproducing for 4 years and can be pregnant a few days after giving birth again.
Can Rabbits and Hare Mate?
No, rabbits and hare cannot mate. However, both groups share many similar characteristics and look-alike to the person who doesn’t know much of the differences about their appearance. But they cannot be crossbred.
Some species belonging to the same genus can interbreed, such as the mule, the hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse. But in this case, both the rabbit and the hare have a different genus and can’t interbreed.