We often joke about rabbits having more sexual relations than most other creatures. The truth is, they don’t.
However, in female rabbits, the process of ovulation is linked to the process of copulation. Each time she has sex, she gets pregnant.
The gestational period for a rabbit is around thirty days. Approximately one week before giving birth, a pregnant female will begin to dig an underground chamber for her kits. Inside, she constructs a soft nest of vegetation, loose fur plucked from her own coat, and fecal pellets.
The rabbit mom gives birth to a new kit roughly once per minute and has three to six kits. She will stand over her nest and briefly lick each newborn as they emerge. She consumes each placenta rapidly, despite being otherwise exclusively herbivorous.
Directly after the birth of her last kit, the mother leaves the nest and seals up the burrow from the outside world.
For the next two weeks, she will only visit her newborns once per day, exclusively to feed them. Feeding periods last for three to four minutes. This is the only contact she has with her babies each day.
Competition for mom’s milk is severe. Infant body mass is a good predictor of their ability to compete; larger offspring can out-compete smaller siblings. Their position within mom’s uterus prior to birth can affect the ultimate body size; those at the ends of the uterine horns, as opposed to being at the center of the uterus, tend to have a larger body mass at birth.
Approximately 20% of wild rabbit neonates die of starvation within the first postpartum week of life.
Rabbit moms do not cuddle their offspring. They do not groom or clean their offspring. If one happens to stray from the burrow, it will not be retrieved.
This type of behaviour is exclusive to lagomorphs (hares and rabbits).
As much as we would love mommy rabbits to be as cuddly as they are cute, rabbit moms have essentially decoupled maternal care from maternal presence.
Although it seems odd for a new mother to provide so little care to her offspring, it’s likely to have evolved due to the extreme vulnerability of rabbits to predation pressure. Each time a mom enters or exits the burrow, she risks revealing the location of her offspring and herself to nearby predators.
The extremely low level of infant visitation in wild rabbits has resulted from the need for mothers to keep the location of their newborns a secret.
Rabbit moms are alert to their infants’ distress calls and to the potential of predatory threats.
An indirect effect of this absentee mom strategy is that the newborns form very close relationships with each other. They rely on each other for warmth, thermoregulation, and company.
The newborns have an internal circadian rhythm that complements the maternal signals by creating an anticipation for the mother just prior to her arrival for feeding. When she enters the burrow, they find her nipples through distinct pheromonal and olfactory cues.
They feed themselves, urinate, dry themselves off, and snuggle back down into the nest with each other. Mom is little more than a food vending machine; they get their food from her, then look to each other for comfort.
Around day twelve, the young rabbits begin to nibble at mom’s fecal pellets. This builds up their gut microbiomes. Then they begin to consume the dried vegetation of the nest material until they fully wean and leave the burrow at around three weeks after birth.
Mothers abruptly stop nursing their kits, even going so far as to attack kits that try and suckle after this time.
Most often, by this time rabbit mothers are already pregnant again and focused on creating a new nest for the next babies.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book: “Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom“