This is the time of year when the Easter bunny hops throughout the land, distributing eggs to children (he silliest bit of folklore-cum-advertising gimmick I’ve ever heard, but we seem to be stuck with it). What better topic for a column, then, than rabbits?–which, as anyone who has read Watership Down can tell you, are fascinating creatures, a lot more than just mobile speed bumps.

We use “rabbit” and “hare” almost interchangeably, but zoologically, rabbits are characterized by naked, blind offspring and a tendency to live in large underground colonies, while hares are born with both fur and sight, and usually live alone in simple nests. As well, hares are generally larger, get around solely by hopping (rabbits run), and have longer ears with black markings.

Probably the most common “rabbit” around here, for example, is really a hare: the “snowshoe rabbit” is more properly called the “varying hare” (because it changes color from white to brown from winter to summer). The jackrabbit, too, is a hare.

Snowshoes and jackrabbits are two of the three most common rabbits/hares found in North America; the other is the cottontail, which gets its name from the white undersurface of its short tail, which looks like a cotton ball. Its other distinguishing characteristic is the fact that it tends to freeze in place when it senses danger, in the hope of going unnoticed. Jackrabbits, by contrast, speed off as fast as they can–up to 70 kilometres per hour.

Rabbits have long been domesticated for fur, food and fun. Most breeds of domestic rabbits can be traced back to the same species of wild European rabbit, but they’ve been dramatically altered over the years until you have everything from flop-eared, long-haired Angoras to the well-named Flemish giant, which can weigh more than seven kilograms (the largest wild rabbit, the North American swamp rabbit, reaches only 2.7 kilograms).

No matter what their species or breed, rabbits become sexually mature at about four or five months of age, and after that, given the opportunity, they breed like–well, like rabbits. Litters typically consist of four to six young, and since the gestation period is only about a month, a female rabbit can have up to seven litters a year–and can keep breeding for up to six years (out of a lifespan of nine or 10). Which means a single female could conceivably give birth to more than 200 babies in her life.

Rabbits’ rapid rate of reproduction has repercussions (but makes a great tongue-twister). Seven rabbits were turned out near Invercargill, New Zealand, around 1860 in the hope they would found a small population, which could then be hunted. They had few natural predators and soon spread across New Zealand and Australia, destroying native plants, eating crops and pastures, contributing to soil erosion by destroying ground cover and displacing some native animals. Both countries have been trying to control this plague of rabbits for decades.

In 1951 the Australians released a new disease deadly only to rabbits, called myxomatosis. Spread by mosquitoes, it was only successful in fairly wet areas of the country…and in Great Britain, Belgium and France, among other places, where the deaths of millions of rabbits, both wild and domestic, were not as appreciated as they were in Australia.

Now the favor has been returned. A disease called Rabbit Calcivirus Disease appeared in China in 1984 and spread to Europe in 1986, again killing millions of rabbits. The Australians began experimenting with it, and as a final step of their testing, prior to releasing the virus on the mainland in 1997 or 1998, released it into an isolated rabbit population on Wardang Island in South Australia. Despite extensive precautions, the disease escaped and spread to the mainland. Since then, it has killed millions of rabbits and caused a furor, not because rabbits are dying–Australians like that–but because its escape raises questions about the security of other labs doing research into diseases.

Fortunately, the Easter Bunny is immune, so he hasn’t missed his rounds.

The Easter Bunny–and the eggs he delivers–are symbols of fertility; they have their roots in the pagan springtime festivals that predate the Christian celebration. (The very name “Easter” isn’t Christian in the slightest: it probably derives from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.)

But, silly as the whole idea of an Easter bunny is, it could have been worse: after all, we could have ended up with a giant Easter chicken who flaps around delivering decorated baby bunnies.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/1996/04/rabbits/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal