Nuralagus was a large member of the Leporidae family, or the rabbit family, who lived on the island Minorca off the coast of Spain roughly 5 million years ago. There was an abundance of resources on Minorca, which meant that Nuralagus grew larger than other rabbits. How large? Standing next to a human of average height, they would reach our knees. They also could have weighed up to 50 pounds. They had a small skull and smaller ears than you would expect on a rabbit relative that large, though, and their spine was too stiff to permit them to jump, so they had to walk instead, and pretty slowly, too. They also likely had small eyes and limited sensory perception. This was okay for them, though, because they had no natural predators living on Minorca. In fact, expert on rabbit evolution Brian Kraatz said that their lives would have been very stress-free and slow-moving, which could have been a big contributing factor to their size and ungainliness.
While modern-day rabbits can swim, this one didn’t have to in order to reach the island about 5 million years ago, water levels in the Mediterranean dropped so severely that they could walk across the dried sea bed. When water levels rose soon after, in what is called the Zanclean flood, they were left on the island separate from mainland Spain, where they came from. The animal who made this journey wasn’t Nuralagus rex, but was an ancestor of the species. Evolution and adaptation can be caused by any number of things, and one cause is geographic isolation. When members of the same species are separated in different locations and cannot contribute to the same gene pool anymore, the two groups split from one another.
Who was that ancestor? That issue is widely debated but two seems to be two prominant options. The first is Alilepus. Alilepus was a lagomorph (rabbit) whose teeth and skull were similar to that of Nuralagus and who also lived in Spain. The problem with saying that Alilepus is Nuralagus‘ ancestor is that they first show up in the fossil record after Nuralagus had gone to Minorca. This doesn’t discount the possibility. The fossil record is always spotty and few animals could have been fossilized during a certain time or scientists haven’t found evidence of their existence earlier yet.
The second option is Trischizolagus. Trischizolagus lived in Spain about the right time, 6 to 3 million years ago, and is accepted as an ancestor of the European rabbit today. It is most commonly thought that they are Nuralagus‘ ancestors. Or maybe the ancestor is a species we just haven’t found yet.
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