By Susan Fleming, director of Remarkable Rabbits  

From the Easter Bunny to Peter Rabbit to the March Hare, rabbits and hares can be found throughout popular culture. But how much do we know about the real thing?

In Remarkable Rabbits, a documentary from The Nature of Things, we uncover the secrets of rabbits and hares and discover the diversity of what we thought were familiar animals.

Rabbits and hares are members of the same mammal family: Leporidae. They’re closely related to rodents but are distinctive in their features. With twitching noses, lanky hind legs and long ears, rabbits and hares may appear very similar, but there are some big differences between the two. 

What is a rabbit?

In most cases, rabbits are smaller than hares, and live in more shrubby or forested areas. Canada is home to cottontails, the tawny rabbits that inhabit our yards or wreak havoc on our vegetable patches. But there are many other types of rabbits found around the world, ranging from Sumatran striped rabbits in Southeast Asia to the small volcano rabbit that only lives on four volcanoes outside of Mexico City.

To escape predators and raise their young, some species, such as the European rabbit, dig extensive tunnels or “warrens” in the ground. In North America, only two rabbits dig their own burrows — one of them is smallest rabbit in the world: the pygmy rabbit.

When it comes to reproduction, other rabbit mothers-to-be will scoop out a shallow nest in the ground, lining it with dried grasses and their own fur. Their babies are born blind and hairless, so the nest enables rabbit moms to care for their helpless young in a warm cloud of fur.

So what is a hare then?

By comparison, pregnant hares don’t dig at all. They give birth right on the ground, and their young, called “leverets,” are born with eyes wide open and a full coat of hair. They’re born for speed, ready to run an hour after birth.

Hares also tend to be larger than rabbits, with longer ears and bigger hind legs and feet. Hares require these features because they react to danger very differently than rabbits. Rabbits are quick to hide, finding refuge in thick brush or inside their burrow, while hares will kick things into high gear when they feel threatened — they’re built for running through their open desert, prairie or Arctic habitats.

Rabbits can certainly move quickly, with even domesticated rabbits reaching speeds of over 50 kilometers per hour in short bursts. But hares can run much faster and for much longer periods. Brown hares, for instance, can reach speeds of more than 75 kilometers per hour.

Some hares even sport different outfits as the seasons change. In the summer, the snowshoe hare’s brown coat camouflages well with its home in the boreal forest. As winter sets in and the snow falls, they grow a new coat of white to match the snowy surroundings. 

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Man’s other best friend

Originally reared for food and now bred for companionship, rabbits have been domesticated for a very long time. Today, the American Rabbit Breeders Association counts almost 50 breeds of rabbits that we keep as pets.

Hares, on the other hand, have proven much more difficult to tame, let alone domesticate, because they tend to be more flighty and less sociable.

When it comes to spotting the difference between rabbits and hares, you can’t put trust in their names. Belgian hares, like the one in the photo below, aren’t actually hares but rather a “fancy” breed of domestic rabbit, descended from the wild European rabbit (like all domestic breeds). Jackrabbits, meanwhile, are actually hares — their upright stance, powerful hind legs and big ears are all telltale signs.

So, next time you’re out in nature or walking around your neighbourhood, take a closer look at that “bunny” you see hopping along — it may not be the rascally rabbit you think it is!

Watch Remarkable Rabbits on The Nature of Things.

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