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The Variation of Animals and Plants

Chapter IV: Domestic Rabbits
DOMESTIC RABBITS DESCENDED FROM THE COMMON WILD RABBIT — ANCIENT
DOMESTICATION — ANCIENT SELECTION — LARGE LOP-EARED RABBITS — VARIOUS
BREEDS — FLUCTUATING CHARACTERS — ORIGIN OF THE HIMALAYAN BREED —
CURIOUS CASE OF INHERITANCE — FERAL RABBITS IN JAMAICA AND THE FALKLAND
ISLANDS — PORTO SANTO FERAL RABBITS — OSTEOLOGICAL CHARACTERS — SKULL —
SKULL OF HALF-LOP RABBITS — VARIATIONS IN THE SKULL ANALOGOUS TO
DIFFERENCES IN DIFFERENT SPECIES OF HARES — VERtebræ — STERNUM — SCAPULA —
EFFECTS OF USE AND DISUSE ON THE PROPORTIONS OF THE LIMBS AND BODY —
CAPACITY OF THE SKULL AND REDUCED SIZE OF THE BRAIN — SUMMARY ON THE
MODIFICATIONS OF DOMESTICATED RABBITS.
All naturalists, with, as far as I know, a single exception, believe that the several
domestic breeds of the rabbit are descended from the common wild species; I shall
therefore describe them more carefully than in the previous cases. Professor Gervais1
states "that the true wild rabbit is smaller than the domestic; its proportions are not
absolutely the same; its tail is smaller; its ears are shorter and more thickly clothed with
hair; and these characters, without speaking of colour, are so many indications opposed to
the opinion which unites these animals under the same specific denomination." Few
naturalists will agree with this author that such slight differences are sufficient to separate
as distinct species the wild and domestic rabbit. How extraordinary it would be, if close
confinement, perfect tameness, unnatural food, and careful breeding, all prolonged during
many generations, had not produced at least some effect! The tame rabbit has been
domesticated from an ancient period. Confucius ranges rabbits among animals worthy to
be sacrificed to the gods, and, as he prescribes their multiplication, they were probably at
this early period domesticated in China. They are mentioned by several of the classical
writers. In 1631 Gervaise Markham writes, "You shall not, as in other cattell, looke to
their shape, but to their richnesse, onely elect your buckes, the largest and goodliest
conies you can get; and for the richnesse of the skin, that is accounted the richest which
hath the equallest mixture of blacke and white haire together, yet the blacke rather
shadowing the white; the furre should be thicke, deepe, smooth, and shining; ... they are
of body much fatter and larger, and, when another skin is worth two or three pence, they
are worth two shillings." From this full description we see that silver-grey rabbits existed
in England at this period; and what is far more important, we see that the breeding or
selection of rabbits was then carefully attended to. Aldrovandi, in 1637, describes, on the
authority of several old writers (as Scaliger, in 1557), rabbits of various colours, some
"like a hare," and he adds that P. Valerianus (who died a very old man in 1558) saw at
Verona rabbits four times bigger than ours.
From the fact of the rabbit having been domesticated at an ancient period, we must look
to the northern hemisphere of the Old World, and to the warmer temperate regions alone,
for the aboriginal parent-form; for the rabbit cannot live without protection in countries
as cold as Sweden, and, though it has run wild in the tropical island of Jamaica, it has
never greatly multiplied there. It now exists, and has long existed, in the warmer
 
 
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