Slideshow: What's Hopping Down the Bunny Trail Near You?

Ten things you may not know about rabbits, hares and pikas

  • Anne Bolen
  • Mar 25, 2013
RABBITS ARE SYMBOLS OF SPRING and fertility in many cultures, so any of them not being prolific enough to thrive may not be a thought that easily leaps to mind. However, Andrew Smith at the International Union for Conservation of Nature says at least a fifth of the world’s 90 or so lagomorph species—rabbits, hares and pikas—are facing extinction for a variety of reasons, from habitat destruction to invasive species.

In the book Rabbits: The Animal Answer Guide, authors Susan Lumpkin, consultant to the Global Tiger Initiative, and John Seidensticker, conservation scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, dive into the lives of lagomorphs. Here are answers to a few frequently asked questions about these captivating animals (referred to as rabbits in queries), including how you can help them, as well as photos of some of the more unusual North American rabbits, hares and a pikas that you might be very lucky to see hopping down a bunny trail near you.

Ten Common Questions About Rabbits, Hares and Pikas

1. Are rabbits rodents?

No. Rodents have two long front incisors that grow continuously and must be worn down through gnawing whereas all of lagomorph’s teeth grow throughout their lives and are ground down by eating vegetation. Lagomorphs also have two extra teeth that sit behind their incisors.

2. What is the difference between hares, rabbits and pikas?
Hares, or jackrabbits, tend to have longer ears and legs and be the largest of the three, ranging up to 28 inches long and 22 pounds. Hare young are called leverets and, when born, are covered in hair, are able to see and can hop. Rabbit and pika young, called kittens or kits, are born hairless, blind and unable to hop. Pikas, the smallest, weigh less than three-quarters of a pound, are shaped like an egg and have round ears, short legs and no external tail.

3. Why are rabbits important?

They are essential to feed dozens of species, from raptors to wolves and humans. Some species depend on them almost exclusively for food, including the Canada lynx that eat snowshoe hares and the critically endangered Iberian lynx, which eats mostly European rabbits. In the North American boreal forest, even mostly seed-eating red squirrels and arctic ground squirrels prey on a large number of young snowshoe hares.

Some, like the burrowing European, pygmy and volcano rabbits and plateau pikas, are also considered ecosystem engineers. They dig tunnels where they keep their young and sleep, which helps turn and fertilize soils for plants, and which other animals can use.

4. Why do rabbits and hares wiggle their noses?

As a prey for many predators, they must remain vigilant, and so are frequently sniffing the air for predators as well as food. Lagomorphs have exceptional sense of smell, having 100 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses compared to our 12 million. They also have two sensory organs to smell, one in the lining of their nostrils and another in the roof of their mouth.

5. Are rabbits active at night?

Rabbits and hares have large eyes that help them see in low light, so they can maneuver at night. Their protruding eyes can also help them detect oncoming predators. Pikas have much smaller eyes and are active only during the day.

6. Do rabbits hibernate?

No. Rather they will grow thicker fur and many will increase their metabolic rate. Arctic hares will hunker down, reducing their metabolic rate and tucking in exposed ears and tails, away from bitter winds and snow.

7. Do rabbits socialize, play or fight?

Once most rabbits and hares leave the nest at just a few weeks old, they spend much of their time on their own and only come together to mate or fight, boxing over a mate or territory. However, some like European rabbits live in warrens or underground rabbit cities of connected burrows, and plateau pikas live in extended family groups, with males even helping to raise young. Some rabbits and hares have been known to chase each other playfully, so in folklore have been said to dance together by the light of the moon.

8. Do rabbits eat their feces?

Yes. Most rabbits and hares are vegetarians that eat various grasses, wildflowers, some fungi, nuts, berries and twigs as well as leaves of shrubs. Rabbits have two kinds of feces, soft and hard. They eat (recycle) the soft feces because while they can digest the contents of plant cells, they don’t have the ability to break down plant cell walls and extract their needed fatty acids and vitamin B. The bacteria in their gut does this for them.

9. What are the biggest threats to rabbits?
In North America, changes in their environment, from habitat fragmentation and destruction to climate change, are the biggest threats to lagomorphs. (See the slideshow below for some of North America's most endangered rabbits and "Return of the Mighty Pygmy Rabbit" in this issue of National Wildlife.)

In other countries, disease, overhunting or introduced species that include other rabbits encroaching on their habitat threatens many lagomorph species struggling to survive.

10. What can I do to help?

Help for rabbits may be as close as your own yard or park.

Leave young alone. Mother rabbits and hares will typically return to feed their young only a few times a day and will otherwise leave them in a depression or burrow to draw predators. In less than four weeks, young will be hopping out on their own. So, in most cases, you should leave any young you find alone.

If you suspect they have truly been abandoned because they are cold and crying, act sick or you know they have been injured by a lawnmower or another animal, call a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator for guidance. Many urban areas now have wildlife rehabilitation organizations or facilities that can provide assistance.

Keep cats indoors and dogs on a leash to prevent them from preying on young.

Provide pesticide-free, native plants for cover and food. Perhaps the best thing you can do for lagomorphs is to provide them with hedges and bushes that will serve as cover from predators. Check into federal and state programs that help farmers to restore hedges and sagebrush to their property.  And of course, please consider making your home an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat® site so you can enjoy wild visitors to your yard year-round! 

May is Garden for Wildlife Month!

Celebrate with us by turning your yard, garden, or outdoor space into a Certified Wildlife Habitat® site to restore vital habitat for wildlife and create a relaxing place to experience nature.

Certify Now
National Wildlife's Managing Editor Anne Bolen wrote about "The Return of the Mighty Pygmy Rabbit" in the April/May 2013 issue.

Related Resources

Return of the Mighty Pygmy Rabbit  
Making Amends with Box Turtles
NWF at Work: Habitat Loss
Wildlife Library

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