Weighing around 55lbs, this giant rabbit eats around $75 worth of food a week, including mostly carrots, corn, cucumbers, broccoli. He’s no Bunnicula, though, he loves his veggies and eats the entire thing!
While you’re biting the heads off your chocolate bunnies this weekend, you might wonder how cartoon rabbits became so central to our Easter celebrations. It’s tempting to assume that because there’s no biblical basis for the Easter Bunny, rabbits and hares have no religious significance – but that’s just not the case.
In fact, the symbol of a circle of three hares joined by their ears has been found in a number of churches in Devon. Like much of our cultural “bunny” symbolism, the meaning of this image remains mysterious – and The Three Hares Project has been set up to research and document occurrences of the ancient symbol, examples of which have been found as far away as China.
Rabbits and hares have also been associated with Mary, mother of Jesus, for centuries. Their association with virgin birth comes from the fact that hares – often conflated mistakenly with rabbits – are able to produce a second litter of offspring while still pregnant with the first.
Virginity or fertility?
Titian’s painting The Madonna of the Rabbit depicts this relationship. Mary holds the rabbit in the foreground, signifying both her virginity and fertility. The rabbit is white to convey her purity and innocence.
Linking rabbits with purity and virginity is odd, however, since they’re also associated with prolific sexual activity, a reputation Hugh Hefner appropriated for his now infamous Playboy logo. Hefner claims that he chose a rabbit as the logo for his empire because the bunny is “a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping – sexy. First it smells you, then it escapes, then it comes back, and you feel like caressing it, playing with it. A girl resembles a bunny. Joyful, joking.”
Hefner’s striking sexism aside, rabbits’ reputation for fecundity has also meant that they’ve been used as a symbol of fertility for centuries and have become associated with spring.
Ye olde Saxon mythe
Indeed, some folklorists have suggested that the Easter Bunny derives from an ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, concerning the fertility goddess Ostara. The Encyclopedia Mythica explains that:
Ostara is the personification of the rising sun. In that capacity she is associated with the spring and is considered a fertility goddess. She is the friend of all children and to amuse them she changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly coloured eggs, which the Greek goddess gave to children as gifts. From her name and rites the festival of Easter is derived.
Indeed, in his 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm states that “the Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara … Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”
The myth of Ostara, then, has become a popular theory for the derivation of the Easter Bunny – although it is a contested one. Either way, it seems that the association between the Easter Bunny and Ostara began with the 8th-century scholar the Venerable Bede in his work The Reckoning of Time. Bede said that our word “Easter” stems from “Eostre” (another version of the name “Ostara”). There is, however, no other historical evidence to support his statement.
The earliest reference to an egg-toting Easter Bunny can be found in a late 16th-century German text (1572). “Do not worry if the Easter Bunny escapes you; should we miss his eggs, we will cook the nest,” the text reads. A century later, a German text once again mentions the Easter Bunny, describing it as an “old fable”, and suggesting that the story had been around for a while before the book was written.
In the 18th century, German immigrants took the custom of the Easter Bunny with them to the United States and, by the end of the 19th century, sweet shops in the eastern states were selling rabbit-shaped candies, prototypes of the chocolate bunnies we have today.
So whether bunnies are unclean, symbols of prolific sexual activity, or icons of virginity, the enigmatic Easter Bunny looks likely to remain a central part of Easter celebrations – recently, one was even involved in a surreal mass brawl in a New Jersey shopping centre. Just where they came from, however, will probably have to remain a mystery. At least for now.
Climate change will have major effects on the ecology and distribution of many animal species. Now new research suggests that rabbits will be particularly hard hit as climatic changes alter their habitat over the coming decades.
Rabbits, hares and pikas could become this century’s new climate migrants – with up to two-thirds of species forced to relocate. There are almost certainly going to be extinctions among some of the more sensitive and less adaptable species.
Rabbits and their relatives hares (referred to in North America as jackrabbits) and the lesser known pikas belong to a group of mammals known as lagomorphs – of which there are 87 species worldwide.
Lagomorphs are particularly interesting to ecologists – and those of my colleagues who work in Global Food Security – as they are a major human food resource, valued game species, agricultural pests, model lab animals and key elements in food webs.
You can find rabbits, hares and pikas almost everywhere, across a huge range of environmental conditions. They’re native to all continents except Antarctica, found from the equator to the Arctic, and from sea level to the very top of the Himalayas.
A quarter of lagomorphs are already listed as threatened, and 13 species are endangered or critically endangered. We were particularly interested in how predicted changes in climate would affect this already highly vulnerable group.
In our study, colleagues from Queen’s University Belfast and I collated all known records of lagomorph species worldwide. Environmental conditions such as temperature or rainfall were correlated with the sites where each species occurred to establish the suitable habitat within which each can persist. Widely accepted climate models of projected future conditions were then used to extrapolate how suitable habitat would change.
The results, published in the open access scientific journal PLOS ONE suggest that two-thirds of all lagomorph species will be affected. Rabbits, hares and jackrabbits are likely to shift towards the poles with little change in the total size of their range – the geographical area in which the species can be found.
Pikas meanwhile, are likely to shift to ever higher altitudes as the lower slopes warm up leading to huge range declines. This is likely to lead to the extinction of some such as Kozlov’s Pika Ochotona koslowi, a mysterious species unique to China.
Of course the animals won’t just remain still while the climate changes around them – moving towards the poles or to higher ground is a standard strategy to track shifts in suitable habitat. Rabbits, hares and jackrabbits can move long distances and can potentially move to cooler conditions without losing too much of their range; the effects of such shifts on ecosystems are largely unknown but likely to cause significant disruption.
The smaller and less bouncy pikas won’t be so lucky. Pikas inhabit generally cooler conditions in the high mountains of the Himalayas or Rockies and will be driven further upwards until no suitable habitat remains. My colleague Neil Reid, a conservation biologist and lagomorph expert at Queen’s, points out that “they will likely be pushed off the top of the mountains, literally, with total extinction the most probable outcome”.
Species traits can be useful indicators of potential responses to climate change, yet have rarely been linked to changes in distributions. Smaller-bodied species were more likely to exhibit range contractions and shifts to higher ground, but species capable of having large numbers of offspring were more likely to shift towards the poles.
The effect of climate change on lagomorphs is predicted to be so substantial that almost a third of the Earth’s land area (31.5 million km2) will lose at least one species by 2100. It is predicted that northern China will lose up to ten species, whereas Montana and North Dakota in North America are likely to gain up to five species – climate rabbit refugees perhaps, fleeing the ever-warming southern states and Mexico. Generally, species on islands and mountains will be the hardest hit by changing temperatures.
However predictive models are simplified versions of reality and as such are rough approximations of what seems likely to happen. Those we used did not account for the complexity of ecological systems, such as how species – like plants or predators – interact with lagomorphs.
Moreover, small burrowing species such as the Pygmy rabbit Brachylagus idahoensis may be able to shelter from the effects of climate change, while larger species like the European hare Lepus europaeus may have to adapt to mitigate the effects of warming temperatures – for example in the way that the Antelope jackrabbit Lepus alleni uses its long ears to shed excess heat.
So we have to be careful in the interpretation of our models – but the consistency of the results across all lagomorph species does not paint a good picture of the future for the group.
Conservation strategies, such as assisted migration – where humans deliberately move species to areas of more suitable conditions, pre-empting future changes – may be one of the few options to save highly range-restricted species, even if it is highly controversial.
Collection of more species records, particularly for already rare species, as well as targeting data-deficient geographic regions (such as Russia) will be vital in increasing our knowledge of the most threatened lagomorphs and informing future conservation management.