Understand mammal behaviour – part 5: rabbits

Discover all you need to know about rabbits. 


Discover all you need to know about rabbits. 


Rabbits often live in large colonies containing a number of social groups.

Each of these consists of up to three bucks and five does and has its own territory.

There is a dominance hierarchy among males and females, and both sexes are very aggressive towards lower-ranking members.


Both ears forward is the default position for rabbits, indicating no tension or aggression. © Federico Gemma

All ears

A rabbit’s ears are the best indicators of its disposition.

Erect and facing forward shows that the animal is not feeling aggressive; turning them outwards indicates increasing tension, while turned backwards means it’s annoyed.

If the rabbit lays its ears flat and crouches, then it’s preparing to attack. One ear up and the other down is a sign of indecision.


Ears turned slightly back suggests that the rabbit is growing tense. © Federico Gemma

Playing footsie

A rabbit that turns its back is indicating that the encounter is over, and one that walks away is being dismissive.

Other behaviour to look out for is an animal flicking its back feet, which shows irritation, while thumping its back legs during an encounter means that it is angry.


A rabbit with its ears laid flat on its back while crouched is prepared to fight. © Federico Gemma

Alpha rabbit

If you’re watching a group of rabbits, you should be able to tell which is the dominant male – he’s the one who is constantly patrolling his territory.

You’ll also notice that subordinates tend to move away when he approaches.

Boundary disputes

Dominant males from adjacent social groups within one colony maintain their territories by parallel running along the boundary and scraping the ground.

They also mark sticks and other conspicuous objects with the gland under their chin.

Males may squirt urine on challengers but more usually attack them, kicking at the belly with their powerful hind legs, scratching with their front paws and biting.

Girl power

Females also fight each other over access to breeding sites.

They are also very aggressive towards youngsters, particularly juvenile females.

Next month look out for how to understand water vole behaviour…

Find out more about the work of illustrator Federico Gemma. 


Click here to read other understand mammal behaviour articles.