Japan has removed the rare, nocturnal, island-dwelling Amami black rabbit (aka the Ryukyu rabbit, Pentalagus furnessi) from its endangered species list, according to a report from The Telegraph. The rabbits can only be found on the remote islands of Amami Oshima and Toku-no-Shima, part of the Ryukyu archipelago located about 350 kilometers south of mainland Japan and 300 kilometers north of Okinawa. They have been legally protected for nearly a century, initially as a response to overhunting. In recent decades they have suffered from habitat loss and predation by dogs, cats and invasive Indian mongooses (Herpestes javanicus), 30 of which were introduced to Amami island in 1979 to control venomous snake populations. (At least four poisonous snake species, collectively known as habu, live on the Ryukyu islands.) By 1999 an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 mongooses inhabited the island, massively disrupting the native fauna.

The Telegraph did not mention why Japan removed the Amami rabbit from its endangered species list, which is usually a sign of population recovery. Japan's Ministry of the Environment did not return requests for comment or information.

The Amami rabbit diverged from other Asian rabbits millions of years ago and has been described as a "living fossil." It bears shorter ears and legs than most other rabbit species, as well as a longer snout and atypically dark black-red fur. Interestingly, the species does not have a tail. The Japanese rabbits are slightly larger than the average North American cottontail, reaching up to 50 centimeters long and 2 kilograms in weight. Behavior also sets them apart from many other species: they tend to live more solitary lives, rather than in large groups. Mother Amami rabbits even seal their young — which are only born once or twice a year, usually one "kitten" at a time — into underground dens, possibly to keep them safe from snakes. They appear to thrive only in either young or mature forests, both of which are increasingly lost to logging and commercial and residential development.

Japan started an effort to control the mongoose population on Amami Oshima in 2005. Hopefully the removal of the Amami black rabbit from Japan's endangered species list is a sign of success in that arena. The rabbit remains listed as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

[Updated January 22: Japan's Ministry of the Environment has finally confirmed that the Amami rabbit has not, as the Telegraph reported, left their endangered species list (although it does not appear on their own list of threatened species here).]

Photo: A 1972 stamp depicting the rarely photographed Amami rabbit, via Stampcommunity.org