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Original photo by Степан Галагаев/ Unsplash
6 Floppy Facts About Bunnies
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by Степан Галагаев/ Unsplash

Bunnies are one of the harbingers of springtime, whether they’re feasting in newly green fields or nibbling on freshly planted gardens and the first soft blooms of the year. Some, like the mythical Easter Bunny, even perform the much-welcomed deed of delivering baskets of chocolate or facilitating a large-scale Easter egg hunt. Here are six facts about rabbits to ponder.

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Rabbits Live on Every Continent Except Antarctica

Close-up of a European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).
Credit: DamianKuzdak/ iStock

More than 29 species of wild rabbits can be found throughout the world, on every continent except for Antarctica. However, one region has an exceptional population: North America is home to nearly half of the world’s rabbits, and the species has developed more biodiversity there than on any other continent. Australia, conversely, doesn’t have any native rabbit species; the European rabbit was introduced by immigrants for sport hunting there in the late 1700s, and today the creatures are considered invasive.

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Rabbits and Hares Are Two Different Species

European hares (Lepus europaeus) sitting in a cereal field in front of a flowering rapeseed field.
Credit: Andyworks/ iStock

The word “hare” is often used interchangeably with “rabbit,” though it’s not an accurate swap, since rabbits and hares are actually separate species within the Leporidae family. The species have major temperament and anatomical differences, starting from birth. Hares have longer pregnancies than rabbits (about 42 days compared to about 30 days), and their newborns, called leverets, are fully developed when born, meaning they have fur and can open their eyes. Rabbits, on the other hand, are born earlier and have no fur, and they can’t open their eyes until about a week later. Both animals have sleek pelts that shed, but only hares have  dramatically color-changing fur; for example, the snowshoe hare sheds its summertime brown pelt for a white coat as cooler weather arrives, allowing it to blend into snowy ecosystems.

While rabbits can be domesticated as pets or livestock, hares are incredibly skittish and untrusting. In the wild, rabbits live communally in colonies of up to 20 bunnies, and dig extensive underground tunnels called warrens. Hares (which do not burrow) aren’t as sociable, but will group up at mealtimes to safely forage for food. If frightened, hares can move at top speeds, covering distances equal to 37 of their body lengths per second — in comparison, cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal, only move at 23 body lengths per second.

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Rabbits Sleep With Their Eyes Open

Close-up of a Sleeping pet rabbit.
Credit: Happy-rabbit/ iStock

Despite being blind for their first week of life, rabbits develop an amazing range of vision. Once they can peek through their eyelids, bunnies have a nearly 360-degree view, which helps them spot predators. Rabbits also have the ability to sleep with their eyes open, because of a nictitating membrane, aka a translucent third eyelid, which keeps the eyes moist.

Beyond their eyes, bunnies rely on two other noteworthy senses — their sound and smell. Rabbits breathe only through their noses, which allows them to smell the world around them, even while eating, and detect danger. Their ears are also incredibly sensitive; rabbits can rotate each ear 180 degrees, picking up on sounds and potential threats up to 2 miles away.

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The Word “Bunny” Was Once Used for Both Rabbits and Squirrels

Cute squirrel looking directly at the camera, puzzled.
Credit: Kativ/ iStock

Modern English speakers often refer to rabbits as bunnies, a word that likely came from 16th-century England. Back then, the word “bun” was used in England for both rabbits and squirrels. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bunny” appears to have become a more widely used term by the 1700s.

Elsewhere in Europe, rabbits were called “coneys,” from the French word conil, with further roots in the Latin word cuniculus. The term “rabbit” was often used for young coneys, but over time “rabbit” became the more popular word. Today, the word “coney” survives in the place name Coney Island.

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One Hare Breed Caused an Adoption Frenzy in the Early 1900s

Close-up of a Belgian hare resting.
Credit: michael meijer/ iStock

Beatrix Potter, the Victorian-era author behind The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, had a love for rabbits and hares — which just so happened to be a popular pet in the late 19th century. Some, like the Belgian hare (which Potter owned and based her Peter Rabbit character on) became so sought-after that adopting one was an extravagant purchase. Belgian hares were first bred in their namesake Belgium, using both domestic and wild hares, and made their way to American rabbit shows in 1877. Between 1898 and 1901, thousands were imported to the U.S. for adoring buyers.

A near-mania called the “Belgian hare boom” emerged, with hares sold at extravagant prices, including a record $5,000 for one creature (about $179,000 today). Around 1900, it was believed that more than 60,000 Belgian hares could be found in Southern California alone. However, like all fads, the Belgian hare market burst when the breed fell out of favor around 1917, and by the 1940s, they were scarcely seen in the U.S. Today, breeders have worked to keep Belgian hares from going extinct.

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No One Knows the True Origins of the Easter Bunny

Easter stuffed bunny with colored eggs and easter basket on yellow background.
Credit: Iryna Tolmachova/ iStock

There are many theories as to how bunnies became associated with Easter — like the supposed Anglo-Saxon goddess who turned an egg-laying bird into a rabbit, or how Neolithic communities in Europe buried hares in religious rituals. What is known is that by the 1600s, English hunters specifically sought out hares for Easter meals, possibly linked to a folk tradition thought to scare away witches, who supposedly took the form of hares to cause mischief and illness.

Around the same time, German children celebrated spring’s arrival by receiving gifts from the “Easter hare,” whom they anticipated by making nests for the hare to lay its eggs — possibly the origin of the Easter basket. German immigrants relocating to America brought this tradition with them, and over time it transformed into the chocolate-delivering Easter Bunny many children await each spring.