Rabbit Color Genetics. Learn the basics about Coat Color Genetics in Rabbits. Find information about rabbit coat color genetics and recommended resources on the subject.
As daunting as it may sound to learn the genetics of every rabbit color, it’s not actually very difficult to master the basics. We can break all rabbit colors into a few groups that greatly simplify a lesson on rabbit coat color genetics. For instance, have you ever noticed that there are only four basic rabbit colors? Black, blue, chocolate, and lilac.
Take any familiar variety, let’s say Himalayan. A Himalayan colored rabbit is white with red eyes, and a touch of dark color on the nose, ears, feet and tail. (The color is also known as Californian or Pointed White, depending on the breed.) All “Himies” are white with red eyes – but what color are the markings? In most, they are a dark gray, essentially black. But not in all. Himalayans are also found with blue, chocolate, and lilac markings instead of black. Some breeds allow these other versions to be shown, some don’t, but genetically they can exist in any breed.
All other rabbit colors are the same way. There are black otters, blue otters, chocolate otters, and lilac otters. Tortoise (“tort”) can come with black, blue, chocolate, or lilac shading. Those are the obvious ones.
Photo below: black tort vs. blue tort
The color Chestnut is a black-based variety. If you look at the guard hairs, they are black. The ear lacing is black. The undercolor, the color of the hair shaft next to the skin, is slate gray. But chestnut comes in a blue-based version, too. We call it opal.
Opal is genetically the same color as chestnut, except that it is blue-based instead of black-based. In other words, it’s the “diluted” form of chestnut. Where there hairs are black on chestnut, they are blue on an opal, and the orange color in chestnut is also diluted to a fawn color in opal.
There’s a lilac-based version of chestnut, also. The common name for it in the US is lynx. The chocolate-based version of chestnut has different names in different breeds, but it looks just like a regular chestnut except that the black hairs are chestnut instead. This color is usually known as chocolate chestnut or chocolate agouti, but the Rex breed calls it “amber” and British standards call it “cinnamon.”
Pretty cool, isn’t it? For another example, the familiar color Siamese Sable is black-based. If you look at the shading where it’s darkest, like on the nose, it’s nearly black. We call the blue version Smoke Pearl. There genetically can be chocolate and lilac versions, too, but they don’t look very different from sable and smoke, respectively. Thus, the chocolate and lilac versions don’t really have their own names and aren’t usually show-able. You’ll find this with a lot of colors. The black and blue versions look quite a bit different and are recognized. Chocolate versions tend to look like faded black ones, and lilac versions look like poor blue ones. They aren’t different enough to be counted as their own varieties, so usually don’t get their own names.
For an educational challenge, try identifying the base color on the bunnies you see at the next show. Places to look for base color include guard hairs and ear lacing, and any dark shading. Also, eyes will be brown on black and chocolate-based colors, and blue-gray on the dilute varieties: blue and lilac.
When we realize that all rabbit varieties come in one of four basic colors, it drastically cuts down the number of genetic combinations that we need to learn! Instead of having to regard chestnut, opal, chocolate agouti, and lynx as four separate colors, we can count them as just one, in four different versions.
Photo below: Chestnut (called Castor in Mini Rex) vs. Opal
But how do the four basic colors relate to each other? Well, that’s another lesson, but thankfully an easy one. In brief, black can be considered “normal.” Blue is a dilute of black; blue has the same pigments as black, but the pigment granules are scattered in the hair shaft, allowing more light to pass through and “diluting” the appearance of the color.
Chocolate is something different altogether. Chocolate is not a dilute color. Chocolate is actually changing the color of the pigments from black to brown. And what is lilac? Here’s where it gets fun: biochemically, lilac is both dilute and chocolate together. Lilac is a diluted chocolate, or in other words, a blue in which the normal pigment color has been changed to brown.
Curious to learn further? Color genetics becomes more and more fascinating the deeper you study it. If you’re interested in discovering more about this important topic, and how to practically apply it to your advantage in your breeding program, check out “A Book About Bunny Colors,” the practical breeder’s guide to rabbit coat color. Written in easy language, this book places emphasis on the “what happens” with coat color genetics, not all the scientific why’s and how’s. It uses lots of charts and photos to help you grasp the information, and spells out how to apply it in your breeding. Check out the list of features below, and then grab your copy to unlock the mysteries of rabbit coat color!