Rabbits are among the most common mammals found all over North America. Wild rabbits have short life spans as they are prey to various predators. They also face harsh environments, and this article will tell you about some of the difficulties they face in the wild.
Rabbits are prey animals with many predators. Rabbits survive by sprinting, avoiding open spaces, performing sharp turns, and squeezing into small spaces.
While wild and domesticated rabbits are among the most common animals in North America, many people know little about them. For this reason, let’s highlight the rabbit’s daily survival tactics in the wild.
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How Do Rabbits Evade Predators?
Rabbits have mastered several tricks to increase their survival chances in the wild against their many predators.
In addition to their fertile reproductive habits, rabbits rely on their instincts and physical attributes to improve their survival. Some of these physical features include:
Like other prey animals, such as pronghorns and antelopes, rabbits have eyes on each side of the head. Unlike predators such as dogs, snakes, cheetahs, cats, raccoons, hawks, coyotes, and foxes, which have eyes in front of their heads, rabbits can see behind them. Their eyes’ position enables them to notice any movement and detect any danger from behind.
I have written an entire article on how well rabbits can see here.
Another essential component of a rabbit’s body is the ears. Rabbits’ ears are long and can hear high-pitched mechanical and electrical sounds that we cannot hear. Their ears can reach up to 5 inches in length and rotate better to collect sounds from predators.
Strong Hind Legs
In the wild, rabbits face a constant threat from predators such as eagles, owls, falcons, wild dogs, foxes, coyotes, ground squirrels, feral cats, and even humans. They have strong hind legs that enable them to run and jump as quickly as possible whenever necessary.
A rabbit can use its hind legs if cornered to kick at the predator, although this would generally be its last option.
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Predator Survival Mechanism
Much like humans, rabbits have developed a high social order. They are social creatures that live in large groups known as colonies. When a rabbit detects danger, it will thump on the ground to alert other rabbits around them.
While rabbits use sounds, body language, and scents to communicate, they are extremely sensitive and will use their senses to detect predators.
Rabbits are generally active from dusk to dawn. When they go out to find food, they can hide from predators under darkness.
A rabbit will twitch its ears, turn its head, and sniff in the air when there’s any sound or unusual movement that they don’t recognize.
Rabbits also deploy a freeze-defense mechanism if they spot a predator from a distance. In most cases, freeze defense will be the first choice if the predator has not spotted him. This helps the rabbit blend seamlessly into the surroundings, making them difficult to spot.
Staying still also helps the rabbit evade the predator since many predators are attracted to movement. In some instances, the rabbit may even play dead.
The rabbit’s heart and cardiac output will naturally increase, and blood is sent to the muscles to improve their quickness and endurance. Whether the rabbit outruns the predator depends on the rabbit’s luck, knowledge of the terrain, agility, and swiftness.
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A rabbit’s chances of surviving in the wild depend on his intuitive ability to escape. When a rabbit’s instinct to flee is activated, it undergoes many psychological changes to increase its chances of survival.
Although outrunning a predator seems the best option, it is not always an option. Under such a scenario, the rabbit may need to use his knowledge of the area. The rabbit can use several tricks while running for his life, such as zigzag turns, leaping into the air, or finding an appropriate hiding spot.
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How Are Rabbits Adapted For Survival?
Whether during winter or in the heat of the desert, a rabbit has various adaptations that allow him to fit into the environment perfectly. Some of these adaptations include:
A rabbit’s fur is essential for survival. A rabbit’s fur will adapt depending on its environment, allowing them to camouflage and blend with the surroundings. For instance, a rabbit in arctic areas is likelier to be white, while a rabbit in the desert is reddish-brown. The fur also protects the rabbit from both heat and cold.
In addition to playing a critical role in detecting any form of sound and alerting them of predators, a rabbit’s ears play a vital function in its survival. Long ears are essential, especially in the desert or hot regions, as they allow the release of heat. The long ears radiate heat, enabling self-thermoregulation.
Rabbits have evolved to have large feet that act like “snowshoes” to protect them from adverse winter conditions. These large feet also have fur to help protect rabbits from the desert heat.
A rabbit’s small, ball-shaped tail plays a crucial role. A long and bushy tail can slow the rabbit when fleeing a predator. A small tail doesn’t stick out and is less likely to be caught by a predator.
A rabbit has four incisors on the upper jaw instead of two. These extra teeth enable the rabbit to gnaw and chew through plant material. Rabbits are strictly herbivorous, so their teeth’ shapes play a critical role. The rabbit’s front teeth keep growing during their lifespan to enhance their survival chances.
Rabbits are highly reproductive, essential in keeping their chances of survival high. A rabbit can give birth three or four times a year. This high reproduction rate is crucial, given that about 85% of baby rabbits do not make it through the first year.
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How Does a Rabbit Survive in the Wild?
Wild rabbits have mastered the art of surviving in the wild. Wild rabbits tend to hide in plain sight and areas that predators wouldn’t imagine.
Living Underground or on High Ground
Wild rabbits survive in the wild by turning underground burrows into their homes. Unlike a few wild rabbits that make their nests in open fields, most rabbits spend their lives in underground shelters. Other wild rabbits will also live on high ground. When creating their burrows or nests, wild rabbits make two exits to enhance their chance of escaping should there be any danger.
Living in Groups or Colonies
Wild rabbits live in groups, not just because they are social animals but also to enhance their survival. Like humans, rabbits are firm believers in strength in numbers. Such colonies have a strict social order. Dominant rabbits eat first and have access to the best females in the territory.
Working rabbits are tasked with digging the burrows and gnawing through branches. As such, a docile or sickly rabbit may not survive in the group. They’ll be mercilessly harassed and denied access to food and water.
Rabbits venture out when they know it’s safe to go outside. This is why rabbits will go out looking for food when it is dark and return to their burrows just before dawn.
Rabbits will not return to an area where they had a traumatic experience. They will not return to where they have seen another rabbit fall prey. Although rabbits are curious animals, they remember traumatic situations.
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How Long Do Rabbits Live in the Wild?
Wild rabbits have a life expectancy of about two years. However, they usually live for a little over a year. Many factors hinder wild rabbits from living longer than their domesticated counterparts, which can live for over four years. Disease, predators, harsh weather conditions, and lack of food and water influence how long wild rabbits live.
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How Do Rabbits Survive in Winter?
The smell and view of freshly fallen snow blanketing the world around you often seem picturesque and enthralling. But these cold months are extremely difficult for rabbits.
Staying Warm During Winter
One of the greatest misconceptions about rabbits is that they hibernate during winter. Unlike some other wild animals that hibernate during winter, rabbits do not. They behave almost the same way through the other seasons but change their survival tactics depending on the seasons.
Although it may seem like rabbits disappear during winter, they are still there. Wild rabbits usually dig burrows in the ground or use thick shrubs to build dens to survive in winter. Those that cannot build their holes often look for abandoned burrows, which they turn into homes during winter.
These are essential in keeping them warm and protecting them from harsh winter elements and predators.
Diet During Winter
Like many other wild mammals, rabbits are limited during winter. Rabbits are herbivores, and much of the vegetation they eat during warmer seasons are either covered in snow or gone during winter.
Wild rabbits will gnaw and chew on the bark of trees and small woody plants. They will also move closer to urban areas to scavenge for food and grain.
Even though we’ve mentioned that rabbits are strictly herbivorous, they will sometimes resort to eating their feces and small insects if the situation worsens.
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How Many Rabbits Survive During Winter?
It’s been noted that only 30% of wild rabbits survive winter. While this figure may not be exact, it indicates that rabbits’ high mortality rates occur during winter. Because food is scarce, the rabbits also face increased risk from predators struggling for food.
How Do Rabbits Survive in North American Deserts?
Several rabbit species are native to North America’s deserts and arid shrubland. In the United States, rabbits can be found through the Plains states from northern Mexico, west Texas, and Nevada to eastern Montana.
As discussed below, Rabbits must undergo several adaptations to survive in the desert.
Wild rabbits in desert regions have very long ears, measuring about 5 inches. The ears have thin skin and are full of blood vessels to regulate their body temperatures when it becomes hotter.
The structure of the ears can regulate blood flow by dilating the blood vessels. This allows heat to escape the rabbit’s body, thus cooling them down. This process also helps the rabbit conserve water by reducing water loss, which may occur through sweating or panting.
Water Intake and Conservation
W#ater is hard to come by in desert regions, and wild rabbits seem to be naturally aware of the scarcity. However, because water is so vital to their bodies and they cannot do without it, wild rabbits have developed ways of conserving water.
Besides getting water from the types of food they eat, such as cacti, twigs, grasses, and desert leaves, wild rabbits survive in the desert by developing water-retaining adaptations. Wild rabbits often eat their feces to get as much moisture as possible.
Feet and Fur
Desert sand is extremely hot, and rabbits have developed large feet covered with layers of fur. While the fur is essential in keeping the rabbit warm during winter, it also protects its sole from the hot sand and heat from the ground. The body fur tends to be reddish-brown to offer desert camouflage.
Another way to survive in the desert is by staying away from the sun or hot temperatures during the hottest time of the day. Generally, rabbits become active at night and remain in their burrows or shady areas during the day.
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References and Further Reading
“Rabbits: Biology, Nutrition and Management” by Peter R. Cheeke
“Wild Rabbits in Australia: Biology, Damage and Management” by R.D. Lound
“The Wild Rabbit: Ecology and Conservation” by R.D. Hayes, G.F. Gipps and H.D. Clout
“Rabbits, Hares, and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” by IUCN/SSC Lagomorph Specialist Group
“The European Rabbit: The History and Biology of a Successful Colonizer” by Richard C. Thomas
“Wildlife of the North American Deserts” by Jim Cornett
“Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates” by David Moskowitz