Get to know the Species

European rabbit: a fundamental species in Portuguese biodiversity

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is an emblematic species of Portuguese forests. Despite being acknowledged for both its historical presence and ecological importance, this small mammal is on the verge of extinction. Learn more about this species and its assorted roles in the workings and maintenance of Iberian ecosystems’ biodiversity.

With a small and agile body, the European rabbit species that can be found in Portugal belongs to the subspecies Oryctolagus cuniculus algirus and stands out for its greyish coat with yellowish or brown tones and white fur on the belly and the underside of the tail. It has well-developed hind legs, ideal for fast running and jumping, and long ears, up to 7 centimetres long, allowing it to hear the sounds around with precision. Males and females are not much different (sexual dimorphism), although the female is slightly larger and heavier.

The reproductive period depends on grazing quality and abundance and generally occurs between November and June. Each female can have between 3 to 6 pups per litter, which reach sexual maturity a few months after they are born.

Despite sharing the same family as hares (Leporidae), the two animals are easy to tell from one another for their size – the rabbit is smaller – and for their different types of hind legs and ears – hare ears are larger.

The European rabbit also has a sharp vision in low light and normally prefers twilight and the night to feed and move around. During the day, these rabbits stick to burrows and dense bush areas, where they feel protected from predators.

A natural ecosystem engineer

The European rabbit occurs in several habitats and prefers bushes and short pastures – especially cultivated areas and areas where the relief is covered with shrubs or rocks. The burrows where they live and procreate provide shelter and are the preferred place for both community and family life. It lives in groups of five to seven elements, according to a well-established social hierarchy between males and females. Burrows are a key element for both the maintenance of populations and the hierarchy of groups whose headcount depends on the size of the shelter.

Their skill and action in digging burrows or nurseries – the so-called rabbit hutches – is remarkable and worth mentioning. They can reach considerable sizes, creating an intricate tunnel system with several exits and entrances, crucial to escape predators.

But the European rabbit does not stand out as a “civil engineer” alone. Its role is also fundamental in modifying and changing the structure of the places where it lives. This species is herbivorous and its diet depends on the type of food it finds, which may include green or dried plants, roots, shrubs and even leaves and bark. The wild rabbit produces excrement, which is essential, thereby fertilising soils, improving their quality and disseminating seeds and assisting the diversity of the local flora.

From seed dispersal to plant population control, this small herbivore has a significant influence on the dynamics of plant communities.


Despite its ecological relevance, the European rabbit faces several challenges that threaten its survival. In 2019, due to the sharp global decline in the European rabbit population (an estimated 70%), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the species from “Near Threatened” (NT) to “Endangered” (EN) and the Mammal Red Book considers it “Vulnerable” (VU).

The fragmentation of its habitat, the degradation of ecosystems and the pressure exerted by human activity are some of the main threats these small mammals now face. The emergence of diseases such as myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic disease has caused significant reductions in European rabbit populations, thus affecting their ability to recover. A study published by the scientific journal Nature states that, despite the recovery witnessed until 2012, the population started decreasing due to a new disease outbreak.

Conservation of the wild rabbit is therefore an urgent priority to preserve Portugal’s ecosystems’ diversity. This herbivore is a fundamental prey for about 40 species of predators in the Iberian Peninsula, namely the Iberian lynx and the Iberian imperial eagle, also threatened in Portugal.

The Nature article reports that the decrease in rabbit populations had a direct consequence on the fertility of the Iberian lynx (65.7%) and the imperial eagle (45.5%), causing a drop in the number of lynx-breeding females and offspring in imperial eagle nests.

Hence the need to implement effective measures to manage and preserve natural habitats, thereby promoting the recovery and protection of wild rabbit populations.

Monitoring and research programmes are essential to better understand the threats faced by this species and to develop conservation strategies suited to its needs. Cooperation between government entities, non-governmental organisations and civil society is crucial to ensure the success of European rabbit conservation initiatives.

The European rabbit is much more than a simple inhabitant of our forests. It’s a symbol of the wealth and fragility of natural ecosystems, a key element in the biodiversity puzzle worth protecting and preserving.

Did you know that…

  • The oldest known fossils of the European rabbit originate in the prehistoric era of the Middle Pleistocene, according to some studies from 2008, a key period in human evolution. That period was characterised by the emergence of many species ancestral to humans, and the emergence of Homo Sapiens.
  • The European rabbit is a food source for more than 40 bird and mammal species and is also highly appreciated by humans for the quality of its meat.
  • As a rule, they mark their territory with urine and excrement in community latrines easily visible along the terrain where they live.
  • The European rabbit is a quiet and little noisy animal, communicating essentially through olfactory signals and touch. Whenever it senses danger, it taps its hind legs on the ground as a warning sign.
  • Mammal

  • Genus


  • Family


  • Habitat

    It is usually found in pastures and short shrubs where shrubs and grass provide safe shelter. It can also live near trees as long as the land does not contain water, thus enabling this species to build shelters and find food. The size of the burrows differs depending on the type of soil. If the soil is looser, this species looks for locations with support structures, such as tree or shrub roots, to prevent the burrows from collapsing.

  • Distribution

    Originally this species was confined to the Iberian Peninsula and the south of France, but as a result of human introduction, it can be found today all over the the world. In Portugal, it occurs mainly in the Peneda-Gerês National Park; in the Serra da S. Mamede Natural Park, the Monfurado Site of Community Importance (SIC), the Guadiana Valley Natural Park and the Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Natural Park.

  • Conservation Status

    “Endangered” in its native areas, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

  • Height / Length:

    It has a length between 38 and 50 centimeters and can weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 kilos.

  • Longevity

    This rabbit species has a very short average life expectancy, usually around 1 or 2 years.

How do we protect this species?

In the forest areas managed by The Navigator Company, the European rabbit is one of the 253 species of fauna identified and protected, under the biodiversity conservation efforts. Despite being a “Vulnerable” species with fewer sightings as time goes by, it occurs in various properties from north to south of Portugal, including Santo Tirso, Tâmega, Góis, Arouca, Malcata, Monchique, Mortágua, Charneca do Tejo, Tejo Estuary, Herdade do Gavião, Nisa, Serra d’Ossa, Pampilhosa, Southeast Alentejo, The River Sado Valley and the Quinta de São Francisco Biodiversity Center.

And given its “Vulnerable” (VU) species status, according to the Red Book of Mammals, its conservation is even more pressing. Protecting their burrows, as soon as they are identified, especially at the time of breeding, is a further preservation measure put in place on the ground. Areas of interest for conservation on managed properties are also duly preserved and promoted, which can serve as places of shelter, food and water for this species.