Not far from Mexico City lives the only population of one of the world’s smallest rabbits: the volcano rabbit (Romerolagus diazi). Their name comes from the fact that they live solely on the high slopes of four volcanoes in central Mexico.

The tiny rabbits, which scientists believe are the one of the most primitive of all living rabbits and hares, have very short legs and feet, as well as short ears. They also have a barely visible vestigial tail, a tail that has become smaller over time and has lost its use through evolutionary change. The dark coloration of their fur blends well with the rocky, volcanic soils of their habitat. On average, they weigh about one pound and are about 30 centimeters (12 inches) long.

For survival, volcano rabbits depend on zacaton bunchgrass—a tall, dense grass that grows in thick clumps on the alpine slopes where the rabbits live. Volcano rabbits dart into the grasses to hide from predators such as long-tailed weasels, bobcats, and red-tailed hawks.

Tender, young shoots of zacaton also serve as the rabbits’ main source of nutrition, though they eat other things, including spiny herbs and alder tree bark.

Habitat changes are challenging this scarce rabbit’s survival. Cattle and sheep overgraze on the zacaton. Farmers intentionally set fires to the land, burning the grasses to promote new growth in pastures. Others cut the grasses for manufacturing thatch and brush.

On top of that, roads are increasingly fragmenting the volcano rabbits’ habitat. And although it is illegal to hunt the scarce volcano rabbits, the laws often aren’t enforced.

For all of these reasons, volcano rabbits are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But there is hope. Recently, the population has been increasing. This is likely because of conservation efforts that include better management of burning and overgrazing of the bunch grasses and enforcing laws against the capture, sale, and hunting of the rabbits. 

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

Noun

organism threatened with extinction.

endemic
Adjective

native to a specific geographic space.

evolution
Noun

change in heritable traits of a population over time.

fragment
Noun

piece or part.

graze
Verb

to feed on grass, usually over a wide pasture.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

primitive
Adjective

simple or crude.

vestigial
Adjective

having to do with a body part, or remnant of a body part, that no longer serves any useful function.

zacaton grass
Noun

any of several tough, wiry grass native to the arid regions of the United States and Mexico.