Rabbits are regarded as some of the most adorable animals, and rightfully so. These animals are older than most people think and have evolved over the years to their current state. This evolution affected not only their behavior and diet but also their appearance. Fossils have been found and examined by experts over the years in an attempt to understand what the rabbits that existed thousands of years ago looked like. Some of the fossils found have indicated the existence of rabbits that were as huge as 50 pounds, and this article will shed more light on these extinct rabbit species.
Meet the Minorcan Giant Lagomorph
The Minorcan giant lagomorph, also known as the Nuralagus rex, is an extinct species of rabbit that lived on Minorca, an island on the Mediterranean sea, during the Pliocene epoch. So far, this rabbit species is the largest ever discovered, with many of them weighing up to 50 pounds and sometimes even more. According to experts, these giant rabbits belonged to the same order as present-day rabbits, hares, and pikas – the order Lagomorpha. These rabbits are sometimes called the “king of rabbits,” and the term “rex” in their name comes from their size, making reference to the unrelated giant carnivorous dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus rex.
These giant rabbits weighed up to 50 pounds (23 kg) and could reach over three feet in height. This prehistoric rabbit is unlike modern bunnies in more ways than just size. It was a little bit in terms of appearance as well. According to the fossils of these rabbits, experts discovered that they had smaller skulls than modern rabbits. They also had small ears, and because of their short and stiff vertebral column, these rabbits could not hop the same way rabbits these days do. The size and physical features of these rabbits were indicators that they lived in areas where they did not have to worry about predators.
Nuralagus Rex Distribution and Habitat
As mentioned earlier, the Nuralagus rex existed during the Pliocene epoch on an island on a part of the Mediterranean sea. These rabbits did not always live on this island, but they were stuck there after the great Zanclean flood 5.3 million years ago, as they were one of the few land animals that were not affected by the flood, and as such, they became one of the animals that lived on the island. Because of how long ago these rabbits lived, experts think they were one of the earliest instances of the “island rule,” also called Foster’s rule, which asserts that members of a species change in size based on the resources available in the area. It is believed that this species of rabbit grew so big because of the abundance of food on the island and the lack of predators. Their reduced sense of sight and hearing was also an indicator that they did not have to worry about predators.
At the end of the Pliocene or the start of the Pleistocene, some 2.5 million years ago, the Nuralagus rex went extinct. Because of the Quaternary glaciation, the island of Menorca, where they lived at the time, joined another island called Mallorca to become a single island. This joining caused other mammals to wander to the island; mammals that competed with these ancient rabbits for food and habitats, eventually pushing them into extinction.
So far, the fossils of these rabbits have indicated that there was probably only one Nuralagus species, and paleontologists found this fossil in red-limestone rocks from the Pliocene epoch. The first bones found in this exhibition were the skull and other postcranial bones. The first official report of these rabbits was published in 1981, but the first complete description was not published until 2011.
What Did the Nuralagus Rex Eat?
Based on observations, experts have concluded that these ancient rabbits were herbivores. Although their exact diet remains unknown, it is believed that these rabbits had more food options than modern rabbits, even though they, like modern rabbits, were herbivores. The Nuralagus rex is believed to have been a digger, searching for underground food and roots to eat. Still, there is a possibility that it could have eaten other plants that could not necessarily be found underground.
Also, the features of this rabbit made it obvious that it was indeed a herbivore. These rabbits did not have the hopping abilities that present-day rabbits do, meaning there was no way for them to chase after their prey if they were carnivorous. So, if they were not carnivores and got big regardless, then it means they had abundant plants to eat.
Nuralagus Rex vs. Modern Rabbits
As expected, there are several notable differences between the ancient rabbits and the ones that exist now. The first obvious difference lies in their size. The Nuralagus rex could grow around 25 to 50 lbs and reach a height of around three feet. Modern rabbits vary in size depending on the type and species; some do not even grow up to a pound, while others can get as big as 20 pounds. Another thing that affects the size of modern rabbits is how much food they eat. Also, unlike ancient rabbits, the modern ones have longer ears and better vision to help them detect and avoid predators.
Modern rabbits are not as big as the Nuralagus rex, and as a result, they do not need to eat as much. They also have a different dentition, preventing them from eating tubers and big root plants. Instead, they eat more soft plants, like grass, leafy weeds, fruits, and other plants that might grow in their chosen habitats.
The preferred habitats of these ancient rabbits remain largely unknown, but because of their size, experts believe that they could not have had the same habitat options as modern rabbits. Modern rabbits usually dwell in huge groups known as warrens and dig their own underground homes, where they stay until they are ready to move due to food scarcity or predators.
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- Society of Vertebrate Paleontology , Available here: https://phys.org/news/2011-03-nuralagus-rex-giant-extinct-rabbit.html
- , Available here: https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna42199729
- , Available here: https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2011/03/23/3171645.htm