by Whit Gibbons

February 20, 2011

The Chinese Year of the Rabbit, 2011, arrived in February, and right on time came a new book about these furry mammals: "Rabbits: The Animal Answer Guide" by Susan Lumpkin and John Seidensticker (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). The paperback is $24.95. You will want this book if you have a pet rabbit or plan to have one, or if you just want to know more about the 90 or so species that live in the world today.

Like the other animal answer guides in the series, this book consists of commonly asked questions followed by answers from the authors, who are experts in the field. The first one in the rabbit book is, What are lagomorphs? The answer: rabbits, hares and pikas, which comprise the order Lagomorpha. Despite the big front teeth, rabbits are not rodents. In fact, a close look at a rabbit's mouth will reveal another set of incisors behind the front pair, whereas rodents have but a single pair. The next questions for many people would be, What is a pika, and how do you distinguish between rabbits and hares?

"Rabbits" and "hares" are distinctive to biologists, both genetically and in their ancestral relationships. A jack rabbit is a hare, and so, according to the authors, is Bugs Bunny. The well-known cottontails are true rabbits. A Playboy Bunny belongs to an altogether different order of mammals. In general, hares are bigger than rabbits, have black-tipped ears, and run away to escape rather than bolting into a hole. But reproductive traits are what really set rabbits and hares apart. Rabbits have their babies in a burrow or ground depression in a nest that is made from their own fur and grass. Baby rabbits are born hairless with their eyes shut, and newborns are completely helpless. Most baby hares are born with fur and with eyes wide open, and they are ready to run.

Pikas belong to a family all their own. Tiny, with short, rounded ears, they look like little balls of fur and are as cute as any bunny. In the United States, pikas are found in the rocky slopes of mountainous regions in the West. One of their distinctive traits is frequent vocalization, including whistling and squeaking sounds.

Among the many questions answered in the book is, How long do rabbits live? Eastern cottontails are believed to be able to live up to 10 years, although most individuals live less than two. European rabbits, a common and widespread species in Europe, are known to live for only about seven and a half years in the wild. In captivity, however, they often live up to nine or 10 years. The authors state that "the only lagomorph that makes a good pet is the domestic European rabbit." As with many animal species that are prey, their life span in the wild can be greatly shortened by predation, and all species of rabbits fall prey to whatever array of predators live around them. An eastern cottontail has to deal daily with the threat of bobcats, foxes, hawks, owls and snakes. Among the most uncaring and regrettable causes of mortality to rabbits, as well as other wildlife, is the automobile tire.

Other interesting questions include, What are the largest and smallest of living rabbits? Do rabbits fight? Do rabbits bite? Do rabbits make good pets? To find the answers, you know what book to consult. "Rabbits: The Animal Answer Guide" is the third in a series. The first two were about squirrels and turtles. The fourth, about frogs and toads, will be published in April. As with the other books, "Rabbits" has numerous excellent photographs, in color and in black-and-white. If you want to learn about some remarkable animals, any of these books is well worth the price.

Will the Chinese Year of the Rabbit bring good fortune to rabbits? Since many people still consider a rabbit's foot to be a good luck charm, the answer is, probably no more than any other year.

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