The classic image of a bunny rabbit is only complete with a fluffy cotton-white tail bobbing about as it frolics across a field. But, does every rabbit have a white tail, and if so why?
Read on for the intriguing answer and insights about this key rabbit adaptation that makes rabbits excellent survivors.
So, do all rabbits have white tails?
In short no. There is significant variation in tail color, particularly in domesticated pet rabbit breeds where color variations have actively been bred into them.
However, among wild rabbits, a white flashing tail is a predominant and necessary characteristic.
Wild rabbits that tend to have rural grassland, woodland, wilderness, or cliffside habitats have a brown coat that is flecked with grey, white and black to blend in with their surroundings.
The tail and underside being bright white couldn’t be more different.
Pet rabbits are bred for variety, tails included
Domestic rabbits are descended from white rabbits but have been bred in such a way that they no longer have a selective advantage for life in the wild.
One of the results of this breeding is the sheer variety of fur colors and patterns in domesticated rabbits including under-tails that are orange, slate, or cream.
Let’s look at why a white tail is advantageous to rabbits and how they are used.
Why are rabbit tails mainly white?
The classic brilliant white cotton tufty tail of a rabbit stands out when compared to the drab, brown coat that is common in wild rabbits.
The contrast is remarkable enough to have invited the investigation of biologists who have studied rabbit tails and how they have used them over time.
Initially, it was thought that the flashing of the white tail was associated with the mating rituals that are common amongst these animals.
But German researchers from the University of Göttingen
have definitively answered the question by finding out that the tail’s primary function is to distract and confuse a potential predator.
By recreating the movements of a rabbit in a computer model, these evolutionary biologists were able to demonstrate that the presence of a bobbing whitetail can distract a would-be predator from targeting the main body of the rabbit.
The bright rump of the rabbit proves an obvious target for both airborne and land predators, but when combined with an evasive Zig-zag sprint, the predator has to constantly readjust its focus, buying its would-be dinner vital seconds to make its escape.
Let’s put this all in context. Rabbits are a prey species.
The findings of the 2013 German study were consistent with the survival of white rabbits being known to be higher where their tails are white.
In the wild, rabbits live their lives with the constant threat of predation by other animals. Prey species like rabbits are essentially food for a wide range of other species.
This means that they have to use physical characteristics and abilities that enable them to escape predators and survive long enough to mate and bring forth another generation.
The whitetail is one such adaptation and makes an excellent survival strategy. Domestic bunnies that live a life of luxury don’t need this feature to remain safe. A whitetail is also seen in deer too where the tail is similarly used to evade predators.
Rabbits use their white tails to signal too
It is likely that the whitetail also serves the purpose of communicating a threat or danger to other nearby rabbits. The tail flashing may be associated with the thumping of the hind legs as a strong warning.
Even if the signaling rabbit does not survive the flashing white signal will warn their neighbors to get away quickly.
Rabbits use their tails to communicate in other ways too, including wagging the tail which is thought to indicate displeasure, or in association with mating.
Other survival strategies that rabbits have to hand.
With predators lurking around every corner, the life expectancy of a wild rabbit is very short.
Rabbits can only expect 1 to 2 years at most so to prolong their days they need to use every physical advantage available to them to escape predation.
Apart from the whitetail other protective characteristics include:
- Running: When a rabbit gets in gear it can hit speeds of up to 35 miles per hour (55 kilometers per hour) to shake off even the most determined of predators. They are also experts of their terrain which provides an added advantage in giving claws or teeth the slip.
- Kicking: Strong hind legs can land a powerful blow on anything that tries to approach a rabbit from behind, buying vital time for a hasty escape.
- Wide visual field: Amazingly rabbits have an almost 360-degree field of vision, meaning that they can spot a predator approaching in almost any direction, including above. Their vision is poorest directly in front of them, but this is compensated by their whiskers. You can learn more about this in the article “Do rabbits have whiskers?”.
- Outstanding hearing: Rabbits have incredible hearing that can detect high-[itched sounds up to two miles away. Their long ears can also be directed to pick up sounds in a specific direction meaning that they can remain continually primed for flight.
It’s clear to see that that cute white tail is the difference between life and death for many rabbits.
White tails are an advantage in the wild and over time have been passed on by successive generations of rabbits that have been able to survive long enough to breed.
The instinctive use of a bright white tail is also needed for signaling and other social behaviors of wild rabbits, but for domesticated rabbits, this characteristic has reduced in prevalence in favor of other distinctive characteristics.
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