Study sheds light on how wild rabbits became tamed

Published: 2014-08-29

The genetic changes that transformed wild animals into domesticated forms have long been a mystery. An international team of scientists has now made a breakthrough by showing that many genes controlling the development of the brain and the nervous system were particularly important for rabbit domestication. The study is published in Science and gives answers to many genetic questions.

The domestication of animals and plants, a prerequisite for the development of agriculture, is one of the most important technological revolutions during human history. Domestication of animals started as early as 9,000 to 15,000 years ago and initially involved dogs, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The rabbit was domesticated much later, about 1,400 years ago, at monasteries in southern France. It has been claimed that rabbits were domesticated because the Catholic Church had declared that young rabbits were not considered meat, but fish, and could therefore be eaten during lent. When domestication occurred, the wild ancestor, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), was confined to the Iberian Peninsula and southern France.

– No previous study on animal domestication has involved such a careful examination of genetic variation in the wild ancestral species. This allowed us to pinpoint the genetic changes that have occurred during rabbit domestication, says SciLifeLab faculty member Leif Andersson.