This question comes from a discussion related to How do you groom an Angora Rabbit? it has been suggested that the Angora is not directly descended from the European rabbit, but rather a Turkish species. It was also suggested that as many as three wild species have been combined to create the domestic rabbit.

The Wikipedia article on domestic rabbits implies they all come from the European rabbit or common rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Several countries in Europe and Africa surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are listed in the article as native territory for the European rabbit.

The Angora is thought to come from Turkey (also on the Mediterranean Sea) but possibly from a different native source.

The Angora rabbit is thought to have originated from Ankara (formerly known as Angora) in Turkey... The characteristics of the Angora coat are caused by an autosomal recessive gene. ufaw.org

There are multiple references clearly stating that "wild and domestic rabbits can not interbreed", nor can any of the rabbit species interbreed with each other.

Domesticated rabbits ... cannot breed with cottontail rabbits or hares. hopperhome.com

Rabbits and hares are not the same. They differ genetically and do not interbreed in nature. Cottontails and domestic rabbits cannot interbreed. Nor can hares or jackrabbits interbreed with cottontails or domestic rabbits. bunnyworld.com

The various species of rabbits do not interbreedModern Livestock & Poultry Production By James Gillespie, Frank Flanders (2009)

To confuse the issue there are other references suggesting several species of rabbits have been domesticated.

Although species within Lagomorpha are derived from a common ancestor... Several species have been selected as domestic animals plosone.org

The following was offered of the wide spread heritage of the domestic rabbit:

Another link: bunnyhugga.com/a-to-z/general/history-rabbits.html It claims the french started domestication but there is evidence in many roman empire era ruins of rabbit pens including Pompeii. I remember seeing a picture one in National Geographic from the Pompeii excavations. – Critters post

But earlier in the same article:

There are currently more than 60 recognised breeds of domestic rabbit in Europe and America, all of them descended from the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species of rabbit to have been widely domesticated. It is a seperate species from other native rabbits such as the North American jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits and all species of hares. www.bunnyhugga.com

There is room for confusion, in tracing the heritage of the domestic rabbit

Looking for answers with high quality reliable reference clearing indicating, that (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is the only wild rabbit in domestic rabbit heritage or identifying other wild rabbits that are included in domestic rabbit heritage.

  • One thing you might not be aware of is there are a few varieties of hares that are approved by the ARBA as domestic rabbits. Belgian Hare Britannia Petite Further a discussion with a breeder from Texas resulted in claims that the Jack Rabbit can breed (and has bred) with some larger breeds of domestic rabbit. The results are not something that a typical show breeder would be interested in however. – Critters Jul 7 '14 at 12:10
  • @Critters the links you include both specifically identify the parentage of the Belgian Hare & Britannia Petite as European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). With the Belgian Hare being simply the reintroduction of non-domestic DNA into the domestic strain of the same genus. – James Jenkins Sep 3 '14 at 14:32
  • I am not sure where you see that as neither specify the the specific specie of rabbit they originate from just that the originally evolved in Europe. There is more than one specie of rabbit in europe. And the History of the Belgian hare has no citation. – Critters Sep 3 '14 at 15:14

Thanks to that Meta question, I got curious... One way to pin down the origin question is to look at the genetic structure of domesticated rabbits in comparison to wild rabbits. From the linked study are some interesting tidbits of information:

  • There are two subspecies of Oryctolagus cuniculus: algirus and cuniculus.
  • O.c. algirus is native to the southern Iberian Peninsula
  • O.c. cuniculus is native to the nothern Iberian Peninsula and France

There are two sources with respect to the history of rabbit domestication.

  • From A natural history of domesticated mammals (Clutton-Brock, 1999) there is evidence of Roman domestication in the Iberian Peninsula for the purpose of meat production. However, there was no selective breeding in place, so not considered true domestication. There's also another study, on rabbit populations present in Mediterranean islands that backs up the Roman claim.
  • Evidence exists that true domestication began in French monasteries in AD 600 after Pope Gregory declared that newborn Rabbits were not meat and so could be eaten during Lent (several sources from the linked article).

In any event, the study went on to examine the genetic information amongst a wide spread of rabbit populations and arrived at the conclusion:

Our results further indicate that the subspecies O. c. cuniculus appears to be the only direct source of all (emphasis mine) domestic rabbits (i.e., there is no evidence that domestic rabbits were derived directly from OCA).

So, the interesting thing is that the Romans probably were the first domesticators of the rabbit in the sense that they effectively farmed them for some period. However, the modern domestic rabbit appears to be specifically borne of the efforts first initiated by French monks as a part of pretending meat isn't meat to skirt the restrictions of Lent.

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