Meet the rabbit

Eastern cottontail. Photo by Gareth Rasberry. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04/14/2022.

This Sunday is Easter in the Christian Church, which means there’s been a lot of rabbit imagery lately in the secular world. Which raises the question: where did the Easter bunny come from? Why is it associated with Easter?

To start with, let’s make this clear: there is no mention of an egg-laying bunny in the Christian Bible. Instead, the imagery of eggs and rabbits around Easter likely stems from pagan traditions. Spring was (and is) a time when people celebrate new life – crops growing, animals being born, etc. Two common springtime symbols? Eggs and rabbits. Springtime and specifically the vernal equinox was also the time to celebrate the goddess of dawn and fertility, Eostre (see any similarity between her name and the word “Easter?”). Early missionaries likely blended these pagan springtime and Eostre celebrations with the Christian holiday of Jesus’s resurrection since they occurred around the same time. Blending these traditions made it a little bit easier for new believers to transition into Christianity.

So eggs and bunnies are old symbols of pagan religions; where did the egg-laying Easter Bunny come from? It’s a little unclear, but the strongest evidence and most likely story comes from German writings in the 1600s. These writings mention the “Oschter Haws,” or Easter hare, a being who laid nests of colorful eggs for well-behaved children. The legend of the Easter Bunny was then brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s, eventually morphing into the Easter Bunny tradition we see today.

Now that we have all that Easter Bunny lore summed up, let’s talk about some real animals: rabbits. You’ve almost certainly seen these creatures, but I bet there’s a bit you don’t know!


  • Rabbits = Bunnies
    • Just to get the terminology straight, rabbits and bunnies are the same thing: you can say rabbit, bunny, or bunny rabbit. Some people may use “bunny” specifically for a baby rabbit, but this term is usually used informally and by children when referring to domestic rabbits. The more formal word for a baby rabbit is “kit” or “kitten;” in adulthood, male rabbits are called “bucks” and female rabbits are called “does.” Depending on the books or shows you watch, you may have also come across the word coney. “Coney” was the original name for rabbits, with “rabbit” referring to the young of coneys up until the 18th century when the term “rabbit” became more popular.
  • Rabbits are not hares
    • Now, even though bunnies are rabbits, rabbits are not hares. Both rabbits and hares are mammals in the scientific family Leporidae, and, together with pikas, they make up the order Lagomorpha. Rabbits make up all the species in Leporidae except those in the genus Lepus (those are the hares).
    • So besides evolutionarily, what’s the difference between rabbits and hares? It turns out there are quite a few. First, rabbits have altricial young, which means they are born hairless, blind, and require lots of care upon birth (think newborn kittens). In contrast, hares have precocial young, which are young who are born relatively mature with fur, open eyes, and the ability to move around (think newborn horses and sheep). Rabbits are more likely to live in social groups and in burrows dug in soil; hares are more solitary and live in nests on the open ground. Visually, rabbits are generally smaller than hares, have smaller ears and bodies, and are more egg-shaped.
Irish mountain hare (not a rabbit!). Photo by AlanWolfe. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04/14/2022.
  • Lots of species!
    • There are a lot more rabbit species than I knew existed: it turns out there are 29 different species of wild rabbits. They live all over the world, with more than half of the world’s rabbit population living in North America. You can also find rabbits native to southwestern Europe, Southeast Asia, Sumatra, some islands of Japan, and a few parts of Africa and South America. The European rabbit in particular has been introduced to every continent except Antarctica. Many of these native rabbits are, however, pretty rare. There are only around 250 breeding pairs of the riverine rabbit of South Africa, for instance, and the Amami rabbit only lives on two small islands in Japan. In North America, the volcano rabbit can only be found in the mountains around Mexico City.
Volcano rabbit. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04/14/2022.
  • Big eyes and big ears
    • Rabbits have, as I’m sure you’re aware, big eyes and ears. They are prey animals, so these organs have evolved to help them spot predators. Between their size and their position on the sides of their head, rabbit eyes give them an almost 360 degree of vision. Their only blind spot is a tiny bit at the tip of their nose. Rabbit ears are generally longer than they are wide and are great at picking up sounds to detect predators. Once predators are detected, rabbits rely on skeletal adaptations like long hind limbs and a strong pelvis to escape. Although they can run up to 50 miles an hour, rabbits rely more on evading and confusing pursuers than outdistancing them. That’s why you’ll see rabbits dart back and forth as they run away – it’s a confusion escape tactic.
  • What they eat (and it’s not carrots)
    • Bugs Bunny lied: rabbits don’t eat carrots. It’s not that they can’t; it’s just not their food of choice. Rabbits instead prefer to eat greens like grass and clover, not root vegetables. In fact, carrots are high in sugar, and a diet high in carrots can lead to tooth decay in pet rabbits. Rabbits also need a high amount of fiber to munch in their diet. Their teeth never stop growing, and without food to grind them down, their teeth can actually get overgrown. There’s one other important part of a well-balanced rabbit diet: poop. That’s right, rabbits eat their own poop. In fact, they produce two types of poop: hard pellets and soft viscous ones that are meant to be eaten. These soft pellets are full of vitamins that the rabbit’s stomach missed digesting the first time around. Eating their poop allows rabbits to full extract all of the nutrients possible from their diet. And don’t worry: unlike us, rabbits can’t actually vomit and have no issues eating their poop.
Yum, grass. Photo by M. L. Haen. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 04/14/2022.
  • Breed like, well, rabbits
    • Rabbits are known for having lots of offspring. And it’s true! They can have many many kits over the course of their lifetime. A female rabbit will become sexually mature on average between 3 and 8 months year old. Rabbits don’t have a breeding season; a female can become pregnant at any point of the year after she’s sexually mature. Unlike us, who have a regular reproductive cycle where every month eggs are released, rabbits are induced ovulators. Ovulation isn’t time based; it’s the result of mating. Rabbits also undergo postpartum estrus, which means that they can get pregnant immediately after giving birth. Take all of this, along with the fact that gestation is only on average 31 days, and you have a species that often gives birth to 4 or 5 litters of a young a year. AND each liter can have between 4 and 12 kits. That’s a lot of rabbits.

One of my favorite parts about rabbits is the role they have taken in cultures around the world. Rabbits are known in many cultures to take on the trickster archetype. Just look at Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit! Rabbits represented parties and drunkenness in Aztec mythology, and the common hare is described as a trickster in Central Africa. Although slightly different, Jewish folklore describes rabbits as cowards, a usage that is still used in Israeli Hebrew (like how we would call someone “chicken”).

Rabbits are also known as good luck, and have been for a long time – the earliest known recorded rabbit’s foot amulet is from 600 BC Europe. Hopefully I can get some of the rabbit’s good luck without taking their foot, and just by watching and appreciating them!

Resources

Britannica

Mental Floss

PBS

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