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When Is A Rabbit Not A Rabbit?

January 15, 2010

Common names can be descriptive—just don’t take them too literally concerning taxonomy. We have the prairie dog that is not a dog (it’s a squirrel), the ring-tailed cat that’s not a cat (it’s cousin to the raccoon), and the jackrabbit that’s not a rabbit (it’s a hare).

At least rabbits and hares are in the same order (Lagomorpha) and family (Leporidae), but there are significant differences between them. True rabbits, such as our native cottontails, are altricial. The newborns, called kits, are naked, blind, and helpless (some assembly required?). Hares are precocial. Their young, called leverets, are born fully furred, eyes open, and ready to go.

In southeastern Arizona, we have two species of jackrabbits, the Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, and the Antelope Jackrabbit, Lepus alleni (not to be confused with the mythical Jackalope, perhaps the subject of a future blog). Both species have huge ears, helpful both in detecting any approaching predator and in radiating excess body heat as blood passes through the fine network of blood vessels.

When alarmed, a jackrabbit will first try to disappear, crouching with its enormous ears laid down along its back. Long legs can propel jackrabbits at forty to forty-five miles per hour in leaps that cover close to twenty feet. The Antelope Jackrabbit has an additional weapon in its anti-predator arsenal. When it erects the hair along its flanks, the white underfur flickers in an optical effect that may serve to startle or confuse a pursuer. Few terrestrial predators can catch a jackrabbit, but Golden Eagles and some Ferruginous Hawks seem to specialize in hunting them. Cars are one of their deadliest enemies, taking a rising toll as more roads intrude into their desert and grassland habitats.

Call them rabbit or hare, jackrabbits are tough survivors—icons of the Old West who continue to make their way in the New West.

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