We all know how fast a rabbit is. Despite losing the race against the persistent tortoise in that famous traditional story, it looks so swift while sneakingly running away from a wolf pack, as shown in this YouTube video posted by BBC Earth.
But wait a second! Why does the video title say ‘hare’? Is that running long-eared cottontail, not a rabbit? Or do both words refer to the same animal?
Well, the Internet says they do not. Rabbits and hares are two distinct species, although they look so alike that it is painfully hard to tell them apart. The question here is, how is that possible? Why were they both classified differently if they looked the same? In what way, then, are they dissimilar?
Well, that is precisely what we are discussing in today’s article. But first, we need to mention a thing or two about species.
A thing or two about species
Simply put, a species is a group of the same organisms that can interbreed to produce similar organisms. Scientists came up with this category as the basic level of the taxonomic hierarchy. Such a ranking system classifies all extant and extinct species to distinguish them from one another and, therefore, makes studying them a less-wearing process.
So every species is unique in and of itself, despite any similarities they might have with others. That said, sometimes these similarities are so many that we, the unspecialised public, cannot tell the difference.
Examples of that are very common. Can you tell jaguars from leopards? How about ravens and crows? Maybe sea lions and seals? Crocodiles and alligators? Why, for God’s sake, are raccoons a different species from red pandas?
Trying to answer this question involuntarily raises another question: what exactly makes a species a species?
Well, it is reproduction.
Normally, members of the same species are adapted to breed and have similar healthy offspring. A rule of thumb here is that two different species cannot interbreed.
We know for sure this is true when comparing two extremely different species, such as penguins and Japanese macaques. But what about highly similar species, such as donkeys and zebras?
Remember what we mentioned a few paragraphs ago? Yes, healthy offspring. The thing is, when different species breed, their hybrid offspring are born with poor health, often impaired and sterile. In addition, it cannot reproduce.
In other words, this inability to reproduce is what sets species apart.
Speaking of rabbits and hares, they, too, cannot interbreed. It is also true that rabbits are often called bunnies while some hare species are referred to as jackrabbits. However, there are six other significant distinctions between the two animals. So let’s explore them one by one.
As we just mentioned, the taxonomy hierarchy is used to classify all organisms. It has eight ranks arranged descendingly as domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Each level is typically broader than the one succeeding it.
The more common ranks two species have, the more similar they are. So, since both rabbits and hares look annoyingly alike, they do have the same classifications from domain down to family, but what succeeds that is different.
Rabbits and hares belong to a family called Leporidae, which does not include any other creatures than them. This family is further divided into 11 genera. Ten out of these 11 genera are classified as rabbits, and just a single genus contains all the hares.
Furthermore, those 10 rabbit genera contain 29 species. The one hare genus includes 33 different species of hares.
The second difference between rabbits and hares is their native habitat.
Rabbits live everywhere on land except for Antarctica, with over half the population concentrated in North America. In the wild, rabbits live in almost every kind of habitat, from woods and forests to grasslands, deserts, and wetlands.
More specifically, rabbits love to live undisturbed in underground burrows and tunnels they dig themselves. It is not just because they love tranquillity and privacy but because burrow systems provide them with protection against predators.
On the other hand, hares are native to Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America only. They mostly live in open fields, farmlands, and grasslands, as well as the edges of woodlands.
Unlike rabbits, hares live entirely above the ground. This is one core difference between both animals that can help you tell them apart. Hares build hay nests above the ground or stay in shallow land depressions.
From afar, both creatures may appear the same. But when looking carefully, we can quickly tell how both of them have different physical characteristics.
Rabbits are small. They measure 36.83 cm on average, with their ears ranging between 6.5 and 7.5 cm. They have a mean weight of 1.75 kg though their short hind legs make them look chubby and round.
On the flip side, hares are typically larger and fitter than rabbits. They have an average body length of 55.8 cm, with their hind legs measuring 15 cm and their ears extending up to 11 cm. They also weigh about 3.75 kg on average.
Speaking of fur colours, most rabbits are either plain white, brown, black, mixed or spotted, while hares tend to have different hues of brown with black markings.
The way rabbits and hares reproduce also clears a big part of the confusion.
For instance, rabbits are able to mate when they are just six months old. Breeding can take place any time of the year, but it is more common between late March and September.
Rabbits, as we will see next, have social rankings which can influence how males and females breed. Male individuals with higher ranks typically mate with several females, while male and female individuals with lower ranks tend to stay with the same partner for life.
A female rabbit’s pregnancy lasts 31 days, and her average litter size is six. Still, she can give birth to 12 baby rabbits at the maximum. Baby rabbits, called kits, are born weary and undeveloped. They are blind and have no fur at all, so they require close care from their mothers until they grow stronger.
With hares, things are a bit different. Hares become mature enough to breed at the age of eight months. They, too, can breed any time during the year, with most marriages happening between January and October.
Typically, a male hare mates with several females during the breeding season. Despite that, females are the ones who decide whether or not they will mate with a certain male.
So a female performs a tiny test to see if the male proposing to her would make a good partner. She runs and signals him to chase her. If he catches her, then he has proven his superiority, and she accepts his proposal. If he does not, then he has got no chance.
Interestingly, though, if a female hare is not interested in mating and a male tries to chase her, she will just punch him in the face to back off!
A female hare stays pregnant for 42 days on average and gives birth to at least two and up to five leverets or baby hares. Female hares can mate again and become pregnant right after giving birth. One female can get pregnant more than four times a year. That means she can have at least eight and at maximum 20 leverets every year.
Unlike kits, leverets are born fully developed. Their eyes are open, and their entire bodies are covered with fur. They can also move on their own and take care of themselves shortly after birth.
Domestication means taming an animal to take advantage of it in any possible way. In this context, domesticated animals are called livestock.
Many animals are a source of food, such as milk, meat or eggs. Others provide essential materials such as wool, fur, or skin. Some animals are kept for farm work. Horses, for instance, are used for riding and ploughing, while dogs are kept for protection. That said, some other animals are just kept for company and entertainment, such as birds, fish, dogs, and cats.
Rabbits have been domesticated since the 5th century. For hundreds of years, they were just suppliers of meat and fur. It was not until the 19th century that humans started keeping them as pets.
Humans used selective breeding to produce better rabbit breeds to make as much benefit from rabbits as possible.
So they choose rabbits with favourable characteristics and breed them together to produce offspring with more of them. These characteristics include size, fur colour, length, and softness, climate adaptability, and health.
The European rabbit
Humans domesticated and bred the European rabbit, native to parts of Spain, Portugal, and France, as well as the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria. Using selective breeding for so long made genes constantly change, and therefore the preferable traits are maximised.
Today, there are over 305 different breeds of that species, and all are now known as domestic rabbits. On the other hand, the rabbits that were not domesticated are called wild rabbits.
One trait that can be easily traced is size. Selective breeding manipulated the size of the European rabbit, and now there are breeds with sizes ranging from tiny to super large. The smallest domestic rabbit breed is the Netherland dwarf, which, yes, was made in the Netherlands. It weighs 0.81 kg on average and is typically kept as a pet.
On the other hand, the largest domestic rabbit breed is the Flemish Giant rabbit which originated in Flanders, Belgium. Mature individuals have a mean weight of 6.8 kg, with 10 kg being the maximum. Because of their huge size, they take up to 1.5 years to mature. The longest Flemish Giant rabbit grew to 1.3 metres! This is the same length as a golden retriever if this will help you better picture what selective breeding can do!
Domestication did not just make rabbits a primary source of meat but also opened the gates for the fur trade. The better the quality of the fur and the wider the colour range, the more expensive it gets. The rabbits’ high productivity rate has also contributed to them turning into a business.
Hares, on the other hand, have never been domesticated—I am sorry.
Everything we mentioned so far marks differences between rabbits and hares. Are. However, domesticating rabbits created another difference, this time, between wild rabbits and hares on one side and domestic rabbits on the other.
Well, both hares and rabbits are prey animals. Wild rabbits and hares that live in the wild can easily be some predator’s lunch, from large hawks and eagles to grey wolves and big cats. So they are always alert to any possible danger. That is why they have those long, sensitive ears to help them detect any noise.
As a result, they are always nervous and ready to run away at the maximum of their speed to escape their predators.
That said, domestic rabbits are not prone to such danger as they live pretty safely alongside humans. So scientists found that they are way less nervous and more chilled than wild rabbits and hares. In that context, it makes sense to find a wild rabbit or a hare’s hearing much sharper than a domestic rabbit’s.
Another thing that can help tell the difference between rabbits and hares is their behaviour.
Rabbits are very social creatures. They usually live in mixed groups of at least two individuals and up to 10. They are more territorial than hares, especially female individuals. So if any outsider gets into some rabbit’s warren, it will most probably be beaten up.
Like monkeys, rabbits have a distinct social structure. Both males and females have ranks, with those with the highest ones being the dominant members. The other members of the group usually have lower ranks.
Dominant male rabbits are those that can mate with the maximum number of females. Conversely, females show dominance through their ability to take over the best burrow sites. This surely happens through fights. Whichever female is able to beat another gets to dominate a larger burrow. And, like in video games, the winner gets a point and moves to a higher rank.
On the other hand, hares are introverts by nature. They are shy and often solitary, hanging out with a single other individual. Unlike rabbits, they are not territorial. That means they do not define an area as their home and attack whoever crosses it. Most of the time, their home ranges overlap. So getting into someone else’s range is not a problem.
Hares are nocturnal. They usually rest most of the day in their nests or depressions, and when the night falls, they go out to look for food. Thanks to their strong physique, they can run super fast.
Well, this is the hares’ main asset to escape predators. Since their bodies are relatively small, they can run up to 70 km/h. That means hares are faster than tigers, leopards, bears, wolves, and coyotes. Those predators run at speeds ranging between 40-69 km/h.
Weather also affects the behaviour of hares. Just like how we feel lazy and sometimes desperate in winter but energetic and cheerful in spring, hares tend to become more outgoing in spring too.
Instead of lying down all day, hares get out of their nests and start chasing other individuals. As we said earlier, spring marks the beginning of the breeding season. If two males compete to win a certain female’s heart, they will race each other to prove to her who is worthy of her love!
Sometimes, they even get into fights, and whoever wins gets to marry the princess.
Interestingly, such behaviour also happens among females. Jealousy can push one female to punch another to stop her from marrying!
Here we get to the end of today’s journey, where we explored six differences between rabbits and hares, the two small mammals that look so much alike but turned out to be highly distinct.
First, we reviewed the biological classification of the two animals. Although they both belong to the same family, they are members of different genera, with each having over 25 other species.
Next, we looked at the rabbits’ and hares’ habitats, not only in terms of where they live in the world but also whether they live above or under the ground. Then after we went over the differences in their appearances and their reproduction cycles, we discussed the domestication of rabbits and how it affected their traits and behaviours compared to hares.
We hope this article was interesting to you as it was amusing for us to write. Since you can now tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare, you can also clear the confusion between squirrels and chipmunks by reading this article or learn more about sea otters and river otters here.
Why not subscribe to our LearningMole Library for as little as £1.99 per month to access over 1500 fun educational videos.