Welcome to Opposite World, where rabbits are in one place rather than everywhere, on volcanoes instead of plains, and said volcanoes aren’t even hot. Usually.
Also known as a zacatuche, teporingo, or most adorably of all a burrito, the world’s second teeniest rabbit is only found on the slopes of Mexico’s volcanoes, which are mostly rock, temperate pine forests and clumps of bunch-grass. The volcano rabbit has a penchant for a particular type of grass – zacaton, hence the Aztec-derived zacatuche – and this is probably where its problems started.
Food for nought
Imagine a world where, if you leave your food out long enough, it grows into a makeshift shelter from the hungry maw of bob-cats, red-tailed hawks and long-tailed weasels. This is especially handy when, as the most primitive rabbit species, you have almost no tail of your own and short limbs, and can neither flash a warning nor flee as quickly as your cousins.
Unfortunately, zacaton is also burned for cattle pasture, growing oats and potatoes, or gathered for thatch and household brushes. And when both your food and habitat are scarce, the last thing you need is land development and poachers, so it’s no surprise the volcano rabbit is endangered. Being a specialist eater and fond of its home comforts, it doesn’t have the option of an epic Watership Down journey.
But it’s a rabbit, so no problem popping out babies in captivity, right?
Too close to home…?
Sadly not. This poor bunny is hit with the worst parts of captive breeding: high infant mortality, stress, and most bizarrely, it can become inbred pretty damn quickly, in some cases losing up to 88% of its genetic diversity. Even the Gerald Durrell Wildlife Trust didn’t manage to breed it long enough, but there is a colony at Mexico’s Chapultepec Zoo, and they’ve helped us study this elusive cotton(less)-tail.
Hops, pops and plops
Living in families of 2-5 at up to 4,250m (13,943ft) altitude, the volcano rabbit breeds most of the year, and like the chinchilla, the females are more aggressive and dominant. They give birth to about 3 “pups”, either in burrows, crevices or the grass, and since they’re neat and use a designated latrine, we can try to estimate the wild population by counting the number and frequency of their, er, “drops”. Most rabbit owners will gasp in horror at this, but while its European cousin poots out as much as 900 a day, the volcano rabbit reaches just over a quarter of this. Ah, the things we do for science. But what’s to be done for the wild ones?
For now, mostly land management, and mother nature has lent a hand. There has been recent volcanic activity at Popocatapetl, so there are fewer visitors and tourists, allowing some habitats to recover. People power has also helped, especially in Milpa Alta, where, possibly due to conservation workshops, locals are working to protect bunch-grass and pine forest areas.
Its population still has more chance of turning to ash than the volcano, but raising awareness about this little rabbit is a good early warning system. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go up in smoke.
Latin: Romerolagus diazi
What? Teeny and primitive rabbit only found on the slopes of Mexico’s volcanoes
Where? Er, Mexico, on the slopes of its four volcanoes: Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuati, El Pelado and Tlaloc.
How big? Up to 30 cm / 12 inches long
Endangered? Yes, due to a small range, competition with cattle, illegal hunting and road development.
Probable motto: I’m so teeny I can hide in my food.
Awww they look so cute. Do they need my help at all?
Yes, due to habitat destruction and illegal hunting, as well having a small range, the volcano rabbit is in trouble. In 2018, it was declared locally extinct in the Nevado de Toluca area, but staggeringly I couldn’t find any specific conservation drives for it.
There is, however, the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature, which runs a variety of projects to preserve the local habitat.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Haywood, Anne, and Smith Juth, Terrell. 2018. “Photo ark: volcano rabbit“. National Geographic.
Hoth von der Meden, Jürgen et al. 1987. “The volcano rabbit – A shrinking distribution and a threatened
habitat”. Oryx 21(2):85-91.
Jones, Carl G. 2015. “The limits of the Ark: What are the constraints on maintaining populations of endangered species in captivity?” Solitaire
Macdonald, Christine. 2018. “Mexico City dwellers shoulder future of their urban ‘Water Forest’“. Mongabay.com.
Martínez-García, José Antonio et al. 2011. “Defecation rate in Romerolagus diazi fed with different levels of Muhlenbergia macroura“. Journal of Applied Animal Research 39(4):317-319
Rizo-Aguilar, Areli et al. 2015. “Relationship between the abundance of the Endangered volcano rabbit Romerolagus diazi and vegetation structure in the Sierra Chichinautzin mountain range, Mexico”. Oryx 49(2):360-365.
“Romerolagus diazi“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Sánchez-Trocino, Mariano et al. 2013. “The effect of Muhlenbergia macroura dietary level on intake, digestibility and weight changes in volcano rabbit(Romerolagus diazi)”. Journal of Applied Animal Research 41(2):234-239.
Smith, Andrew T. et al. 2018. Lagomorphs: Pikas, rabbits and hares of the world. Johns Hopkins University Press.
“Volcano rabbit declared extinct due to lost habitat“. 2018. Mexico News Daily.
Featured image credit: Juan Cruzado Cortés