Now in the seven Porto Santo rabbits the upper surface of the tail was reddish-brown, and the tips of the ears had no trace of the black edging. But here we meet with a singular circumstance: in June, 1861 I examined two of these rabbits recently sent to the Zoological Gardens, and their tails and ears were coloured as just described; but when one of their dead bodies was sent to me in February, 1865, the ears were plainly edged, and the upper surface of the tail was covered with blackish-grey fur, and the whole body was much less red; so that under the English climate this individual rabbit had recovered the proper colour of its fur in rather less than four years!

The two little Porto Santo rabbits, whilst alive in the Zoological Gardens, had a remarkably different appearance from the common kind. They were extraordinarily wild and active, so that many persons exclaimed on seeing them that they were more like large rats than rabbits. They were nocturnal to an unusual degree in their habits, and their wildness was never in the least subdued; so that the superintendent, Mr. Bartlett, assured me that he had never had a wilder animal under his charge. This is a singular fact, considering that they are descended from a domesticated breed. I was so much surprised at it, that I requested Mr. Haywood to make inquiries on the spot, whether they were much hunted by the inhabitants, or persecuted by hawks, or cats, or other animals; but this is not the case, and no cause can be assigned for their wildness. They live both on the central, higher rocky land and near the sea-cliffs, and, from being exceedingly shy and timid, seldom appear in the lower and cultivated districts. They are said to produce from four to six young at a birth, and their breeding season is in July and August. Lastly, and this is a highly remarkable fact, Mr. Bartlett could never succeed in getting these two rabbits, which were both males, to associate or breed with the females of several breeds which were repeatedly placed with them.

If the history of these Porto Santo rabbits had not been known, most naturalists, on observing their much reduced size, their colour, reddish above and grey beneath, their tails and ears not tipped with black, would have ranked them as a distinct species. They would have been strongly confirmed in this view by seeing them alive in the Zoological Gardens, and hearing that they refused to couple with other rabbits. Yet this rabbit, which there can be little doubt would thus have been ranked as a distinct species, as certainly originated since the year 1420. Finally, from the three cases of the rabbits which have run wild in Porto Santo, Jamaica, and the Falkland Islands, we see that these animals do not, under new conditions of life, revert to or retain their aboriginal character, as is so generally asserted to be the case by most authors.


When we remember, on the one hand, how frequently it is stated that important parts of the structure never vary; and, on the other hand, on what small differences in the skeleton fossil species have often been founded, the variability of the skull and of some other bones in the domesticated rabbit well deserves attention. It must not be supposed that the more important differences immediately to be described strictly characterise any one breed; all that can be said is, that they are generally present in certain breeds. We should bear in mind that selection has not been applied to fix any character in the skeleton, and that the animals have not had to support themselves under uniform habits of life. We cannot account for most of the differences in the skeleton; but we shall see that the increased size of the body, due to careful nurture and continued selection, has affected the head in a particular manner. Even the elongation and lopping of the ears have influenced in a small degree the form of the whole skull. The want of exercise has apparently modified the proportional length of the limbs in comparison with that of the body.

Charles Darwin

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