What is the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares?
If we spot a long eared little mammal running across a meadow, it's not always easy to tell if it is a rabbit or hare. In fact, we have to look at the taxonomic classification of these two species to see how they differentiate. If you ask yourself how closely related are rabbits and hares, then it is important to know they di differ in various ways, despite their similarities. This includes their morphology, habitat, reproduction and behavior, among others.
To know what are the differences between rabbits and hares, AnimalWised looks at the specifics of these two species. I doing so, we also find out some fun facts about these incredible creatures.
Rabbits and hares taxonomy
The first difference between rabbits and hares we can find is seen by the taxonomic categorization of the animals. Rabbits and hares belong to the family Leporidae, a subset of the order lagomorph which also contains pikas (from the family Ochotonidae). Lagomorph means ‘a body like a hare’, which is one reason why rabbits and hares are confused so easily as they look similar morphologically.
Rabbits and hares are categorized differently because they have different characteristics, something which can be seen by the fact there more than 60 individual species grouped under 11 genera. Out of these 11 genera, 10 are considered rabbits and 1 belongs to the order hares.
Hares belong to the genus Lepus, of which there are 32 different species:
- Lepus alleni
- Lepus americanus
- Lepus arcticus
- Lepus othus
- Lepus timidus
- Lepus californicus
- Lepus callotis
- Lepus capensis
- Lepus flavigularis
- Lepus insularis
- Lepus saxatilis
- Lepus tibetanus
- Lepus tolai
- Lepus castroviejoi
- Lepus comus
- Lepus coreanus
- Lepus corsicanus
- Lepus europaeus
- Lepus mandschuricus
- Lepus oiostolus
- Lepus starcki
- Lepus townsendii
- Lepus fagani
- Lepus microtis
- Lepus hainanus
- Lepus nigricollis
- Lepus peguensis
- Lepus sinensis
- Lepus yarkandensis
- Lepus brachyurus
- Lepus habessinicus
Rabbits make up the remainder of the Leporidae family which are:
These rabbits have various subspecies, with the Genus Oryctolagus containing the various breeds of domestic rabbit which derive from the European rabbit. The last two genera, Caprolagus and Pronolagus, are sometimes referred to as hares instead of rabbits, showing there is some crossover. The reason for this is often to do with the complicated history of how we categorize animals.
One question some people have about these animals is what is the difference between jackrabbits and hares. The answer, somewhat confusingly, is nothing. A jackrabbit is simply a type of hare in the genus Lepus. What is most confusing is that, as they are hares, jackrabbits are not actually rabbits despite their name.
Differences between rabbits and hares - habitat
European hares (Lepus europaeus) are distributed throughout Britain, Western Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. However, due to human migration, they have been artificially introduced to other parts of the world. The hare's habitat consists of nests made from flattened grass and they prefer open fields or pastures to live.
By contrast, European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are present in the Iberian Peninsula, small regions in France and North Africa. One similarity between hares and rabbits, is that rabbits have also been introduced to other parts of the world. The habit of wild rabbits is different. Instead of preferring open plains, rabbits excavate complex burrows in the ground. This occurs mainly in forests or shrubland. They prefer to live close to sea level in areas with soft and sandy soil.
Unlike hares, rabbits have learned to live with human beings. This process of domestication was likely started due to the rabbit being bred for fur and food, rather than having to rely on hunting in the wild. Confusingly, the originators of domestic rabbits in the USA is the Belgian hare. This is not actually a hare at all, but a rabbit which had been bred to have characteristics similar to the hare. Once very popular, there are very few remaining examples of the breed.
Humans have also caused rabbit populations to move thanks to land development. When land on which the rabbits live is destroyed, the rabbits flee their burrows and move to new territory. They are very adaptable animals and can survive in many different areas, resulting in them being a species which is often seen as invasive.
Difference between rabbits and hares - morphology
The morphology (body shape) is another key difference between hares and rabbits. European hares have 48 chromosomes and are slightly larger than most rabbits with an average length of 68 cm. They display a yellowish-brown or grayish-brown outer coat, but their inner-coat is grayish white. Their tails are black on top and grayish white on the bottom. Their ears measure around 10 cm and have black spots on the top. One important morphological trait is their articulated skull, something unique among mammals.
There is no sexual dimorphism which differentiates males and females to the naked eye. Additionally, in winter, their fur changes to a grayish white color. They are athletic animals, able to reach speeds of up to 64 kph (40 mph) and can jump up to 3 meters in the air.
European rabbits have less chromosomes at 44, showing that their fundamental DNA makeup is different. They are on average smaller than hares and have shorter ears, although certain domestic breeds are lopped and have similarly long ears. The wild European rabbit measures about 44 cm in length and can weigh between 1.5 kg and 2.5 kg. This size and weight varies greatly in domestic rabbits as giant and dwarf breeds are significantly larger or smaller, respectively.
The coat of wild rabbits can combine shades of gray, black, brown or red on their guard hair outer-coat. Their undercoat is usually a pale grey and their tail is white. Their ears and legs are short, the later contributing to the fact they are less powerful, fast and agile when compared to hares. As we state above, the European rabbit is the progenitor of the domestic rabbit which contains over 80 individual breeds recognized by various rabbit associations worldwide.
Differences between rabbits and hares - behavior
The European hair is solitary, crepuscular and nocturnal. We generally only observe them in the daytime during breeding season when they look for mates. These animals are active throughout the year, especially at night. During daylight hours, hares look for lowland to lay down and rest.
They are prey to various predatory animals such as foxes, wolves, coyotes, feral cats, hawks and owls. Thanks to their excellent sense of smell, sight and hearing, hares can quickly detect threats. They are able to reach high speeds, but their manoeuvrability is top class, often dodging predators by making sharp turns when running fast.
Hares communicate through grunting, guttural calls and even the grinding of their teeth. The latter is interpreted as a warning signal to other hares. They also emit an acute high pitched scream when injured or trapped.
On the other hand, although European rabbits are crepuscular and nocturnal, they are also gregarious. This means they spend more time with other animals of their species. They lodge in elaborately designed burrows which are especially large and complex. Each burrow houses between 6 and 10 individuals of both sexes. Males are especially territorial during the breeding season.
Rabbits are generally much quieter animals than hares. However, they are also capable of emitting loud cries when they are frightened or hurt. They also communicate through with signs, smells and by beating their feet on the ground (the inspiration for the character ‘Thumper’ in Disney's Bambi). This system helps individuals signal to the rest of the group that danger is imminent.
Differences between rabbits and hares - diet
The diet of rabbits and hare is very similar as they are both herbivorous animals. Additionally, they both carry out coprophagy, meaning the consumption of their own feces. The purpose of this is a way to absorb necessary nutrients from food which they were unable to get during the first round of digestion.
Hares feed mostly on grass and other plants, although they may eat branches, twigs and the bark of shrubs in winter. They will also eat some fruit found while foraging. Similarly, rabbits are known to ingest grass, leaves, buds, roots and tree bark.
Differences between rabbits and hares - reproduction
One of the differences between hares and rabbits are quite acute in terms of reproduction. This is something particularly remarkable when we look at baby rabbits and hares. The main difference is that hares are precocial meaning their offspring are born fully developed, ready to stand and able to perform many of the functions of adult hares. Conversely, rabbits are altricial which means they are born deaf, blind, hairless and, as a result, completely dependent on their mother for survival.
Hares mainly reproduce in winter, specifically the months of January and February, but also in the middle of summer. The gestation of baby hares lasts an average of 56 days and the size of the litter varies enormously. Female hares can birth between 1 to 8 leverets (the name of a baby hare). Hares are not as prolific animals as rabbits with ovulation lasting only hours at a time. Males will sometimes fight with unreceptive females, standing on their hind legs and ‘boxing’ with their front.
Leverets are born into a depression in the ground which is not as protective as a rabbit nest, but since they are active from birth, they are better able to defend themselves. Leverets will disperse during the day and then come back to the birthing area at night. At this time, the mother returns and provides milk. The mother then leaves the baby hares.
Rabbits are well known for their prolific birth rates and this is in part due to having no specific heat cycle. Rabbits can mate during any point of the year, although it occurs most frequently during the first half of the year. Their gestation period is much shorter at around 30 days and their litter of kits (the word for baby rabbits) is usually a little larger at around 3 to 6 individuals. Female rabbits undergo induced ovulation. This means their release their eggs for fertilization when the male penetrates them for sex.
Rabbits can have several litters per year and are able to reproduce again almost immediately after birth. Once born, the vulnerable kits are weaned regularly for at least a month. They reach sexual maturity after about 8 months of age. Unlike hares, the mortality rate of rabbits in the wild is around 90% during their first year of life. This is perhaps the evolutionary explanation behind the rabbit's greater reproductive activity compared to the more stable hare population.
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