Friday, December 14, 2018

What is a rabbit...really?

Sometimes when it’s quiet, and I’m in a relaxed state, I think about what life will be like when I finally get my rabbits. It feels nice to picture myself feeding them, petting them, and even giving them proper rabbit massages.

But how much do I really know about rabbits? Let me just start with the basics. What is a rabbit…really? If someone were to ask me to define the term, rabbit, I might say something like, “A rabbit is a warm blooded creature…a mammal…with four legs and a roundish tail that hops” (the animal, not the tail, lol). Yet, this definition seems inadequate to me. A search on the web for completeness brings about more questions. A.T. Smith of Britannica states that a rabbit is “any of 29 species of long-eared mammals belonging to the family Leporidae, excluding hares” (2018).  However, it goes on to say that a jackrabbit is a hare, not a rabbit, and that rockhares and hispid hares are actually rabbits. Hmmm. Time to back up a bit and take a different approach.

Using a taxonomic approach, one can see the many classifications that include rabbits, starting from the broadest group, Kingdom Animalia, which is the animal kingdom, down to the domestic rabbit species.

Rabbit Taxonomy:

  Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
     Infraphylum: Vertebrata (the vertebrates)
        Class: Mammalia (the mammals)
          Order: Lagomorpha(pikas, rabbits, and hares)
            Family Leporidae: rabbits and hares
             Genus Lepus: hares 
             Genus Oryctolagus: domestic rabbits
                Species:  Oryctolagus cuniculus: the domestic rabbit species

The domestic rabbit is one species within Genus Oryctolagus- the only species.  In spite of that, there are many different breeds of rabbits residing in homes within the United States:  Flemish giant, dwarf Hotot, Havana, New Zealand, Dutch, lionhead, and mini lop are just a few of them.

Rabbits are in the same family as hares, but they are certainly different from them. Think of them as cousins. Hares are larger than rabbits, especially the ears and hind legs. When hares are born, they have fur and they can see. Give them a little resting time after the birth and they’ll be ready to go! Rabbits are the opposite. Bald with closed eyes, they simply can’t do for themselves. So Mom steps in to nurture them.

It's not uncommon to see a wild rabbit outside alone.  However, when that rabbit goes home, it's a totally happening social scene!  Hares?  Not so much.  Many rabbits live underground.  They take care in building their earthy homes, as they have different rooms and multiple entrances, which may be hidden by trees and shrubs. Hares seem to be more daring, as they build their homes out in the open, such as on the prairie or in the dessert. Of course, are some exceptions to the size and environment rules. Flemish giants are rabbits that are…giant. And dessert cottontails are rabbits that live…in the dessert!!

What about pikas? And how do rodents fit into all of this? Pikas are lagomorphs, so they share the order of Lagomorpha with rabbits and hares, but not the family of Leporidae. Instead, they are in the family of Ochotonidae. On their site, Britannica explains what pikas are, stating that they are “small short-legged and virtually tailless egg-shaped mammal found in the mountains of western North America and much of Asia. Despite their small size, body shape, and round ears, pikas are not rodents but the smallest representatives of the lagomorphs” (Smith, 2018).

Back in the 1800s, rabbits, hares, and pikas were actually considered to be rodents! Instead of belonging to Order Lagomorpha, they were classified under Order Rodentia! But general differences in dental, skeletal, digestive, and reproductive systems, lead scientists to remove lagomorphs from the rodent order. However, the pika, with its short, round ears and pointed face, does indeed look just like a rodent…just like a rodent! And the viscacha, with its long, upright ears and lengthy whiskers, looks like a wise, old rabbit. It’s actually a rodent. Isn’t nature grand?

To see a pika, cousin to the rabbit, please click here (and then go down the page).

To see a viscacha, a rodent, please click here.

1) Arizona-Senora Desert Museum, Rabbits and Hares 
2) Animal World, Pet Rabbit Index 
4) House Rabbit Society, Lagomorph Species 
5) Andino Expediciones (Apr 2013), Viscach 
6) ITIS Report, Oryctolagus cuniculus 
7) Smith, A.T., Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pika 
8) Smith, A.T., Encyclopaedia Britannica, Lagomorph 
9) Smith, A.T., Encyclopaedia Britannica, Rabbit 
10) Rafferty, J.P., Encyclopaedia Britannica, What's the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares? 
11) A.G.C. (1994), B.M.W.(2000), P.D.P. (1994), Smith, D. (2005), Introduction to the Rodentia 
12) English Oxford Living Dictionary, Is a Rabbit a Rodent? 
13) Zarbock M. (Oct 2017), Flemish Giant Rabbit Breed 
14) The Infinite Spider (Mar 2014), Why Rabbits are not Rodents 
15) Langely, L., National Geographic (Dec 19, 2014), What's the Difference between Rabbits and Hares?
16) *Carlson, L. (Jun 2018), Lennon the Bunny, What Breed is Your Rabbit? 
17) *Carlson, L. (Sept 2017), Lennon the Bunny, Our First Q & A Video! 
*Note: If you visit YouTube clips on Lennon the Bunny, please be aware that according to Carlson, Lennon was raised somewhat differently than other bunnies and therefore, she seems to like stuff or tolerate things that other bunnies don't. Please keep this in mind when viewing Lennon's clips.