Hare affair requires some research

By Jim Lee: PNT columnist

Not too long ago, at lunch with some university people, I mentioned how odd it seemed that the snowshoe hare is actually a rabbit while the jackrabbit is actually a hare.
I thought I knew what I was talking about, and no biologist was present, so I apparently spoke confidently enough to gain some credibility — either that or they were just treating me politely.
Eastern New Mexico University President Steven Gamble, who had joined us at the table, suggested that I write a column about it.
I appreciated his interest and respected his opinion, so I decided to write about that animal naming snafu. Just to be on the safe side, though, I did a bit of research just in case I was wrong. After all, I didn’t remember where or when I had heard about the two animals. I suddenly didn’t feel as confident as I had appeared at lunch that day. When I got some facts, I felt even less confident.
Well, it turns out I was half right. (Or is that half wrong?) The jackrabbit is indeed a hare after all.
The downside is that the snowshoe hare is not a rabbit.
Both hares and rabbits are lagomorphs (the order lagomorpha), which means they are gnawing herbivorous mammals that are not rodents.
In spite of this similarity, the hares and rabbits have some striking differences.
Hares are born with fur and open eyes (precocial) while rabbits are born naked and blind (altricial). Hares spend their lives from birth in the open, but rabbits have burrows. Both jackrabbits and snowshoe hares (also called varying hares) do without burrows and are born precocial — so forget rabbits because they’re both hares.
Wait a minute. What about bunnies? Where do they fit into this? More specifically, how do we handle the classification of Bugs Bunny?
Bunny doesn’t mean young hare because the correct term is leveret. Besides, bunny means young rabbit. Of course, from this I can cleverly deduce that Bugs Bunny is not a hare. However, this does not allow for the fact that he looks like the black-tailed jackrabbit common to the Southwest, and we now know a jackrabbit is actually a hare.
As if this ain’t confusing enough at this point, cartoons show him living underground like a rabbit and becoming Elmer Fudd’s prey during rabbit season.
I asked a few of my co-workers if Bugs is a hare or a rabbit, and almost everyone said he is a hare, even though nobody I spoke to was sure about the difference (if any) between a hare and a rabbit.
Some of them said they regarded Bugs Bunny as a hare because of his hare-brained schemes to create problems for Elmer Fudd. So Bugs is a trickster.
Trickster is a clue because in African folktales the hare is an animal that plays tricks on people. This tradition continued with African slaves and their descendents in this country. A good example is the Brer Rabbit stories, which continue in our culture to this day. So I guess Brer Rabbit isn’t any more of a rabbit than a jackrabbit.
As interesting as all that may be, it still doesn’t settle the matter of why a Lepus californicus is inaccurately called a black-tailed jackrabbit instead of a black-tailed jackhare while a Lepus americanus is correctly called a snowshoe or varying hare.
But I did learn how to classify Bugs Bunny: He’s a Critterus loonytunus.
Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:
dr_james_lee@hotmail.com