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Are jackalopes real?

We scientists don’t have much patience for myths, science fiction, or pseudo-science. Legends of Bigfoot irritate our rational sensibilities. But sometimes it is really fun to dive into myths and tall tales and try to discover a factual basis for these wild ideas. Let’s consider my favorite one: the mighty, some would say creepy, jackalope!

Jackalopes, in a sense, are real creatures. I know you don’t believe me, but the problem you are having is in your perception that is based on cheesy postcards, bad taxidermy mounts, and the pervasive influence of larger-than-life culture of the American West. Rather than start by considering the rabbit involved, let’s start with the essential nature of antlers vs. horns. Jackalope representations most frequently are of a bunny with paired antlers on their heads. Antlers … not horns. Antlers are specific to cervid mammals such as deer, moose, etc., and are composed of bone that develops underneath the skin. The skin is the so-called velvet that the animals strip away after the antlers are complete, leaving exposed bone. The skin is over the bone, until the skin falls away. Horns are fundamentally different, because the structure is not made of bone, but rather compressed strands of keratin (the same protein that forms claws, scales, feathers, fingernails, and horns). In some cases, the keratinous horn forms in the skin that grows over a specialized bony base. Imagine a cow skull with the keratinous horns removed; you can clearly see the underlying bony base upon which the horn rested. Rhinos are a bit different because the keratinous horn does not rest atop a bony base. You would be surprised how many of my students fail to identify a rhino skull in my classes. It looks like a gigantic pig skull and, with no visible trace of the well-known horn, people just don’t make the connection.

Early naturalists did not have cameras, yet they provided descriptions, and sometimes rather fanciful drawings, of what they documented. I’ve heard that Lewis and Clark documented horned rabbits, but I have not been able to verify that. So, we have reputable descriptions, and arguably accurate illustrations of “horned rabbits.” The problem, of course, is that rabbits simply do not have antlers, and they don’t have our typical mammal-based concept of horns. So, what did they see? Now that I have your incredulous nature engaged, I will pop the balloon and tell you that the horns do not look like the postcards. While they are definitely not antlers, if we agree that a rhino has a veritable horn (that is not situated atop a bony base) then Lewis and Clark documented horned rabbits. The situation is that there is a fairly uncommon virus that affects rabbits that produces a syndrome called Shope’s Papilloma; it is most common in midwestern North America, although it occurs in Europe as well. The papillomas that the virus induces cause keratinous tumors to grow out of the skin. They look like hair grown in shaggy concreted clumps, quite like a dreadlock in some senses. These horns grow seemingly randomly, dangling glaringly from the bunny’s coat; they are not discrete paired structures atop the head.

As I learned today, the concept of a jackalope was developed by some entrepreneurs in Wyoming who created taxidermied chimerae to sell to tourists and then, apparently, kitschy mid-century pop culture, and the larger-than-life Texas mindset ran with the theme. So, jackalopes technically do exist if we agree on the definition of a horn. I have seen a few jackalope images that used horns from pronghorns, rather than deer antlers. That’s a bit closer to the truth, but still not quite right. Jackalopes are not a distinct species of rabbit, they simply are cottontails and jackrabbits afflicted with a rare virus. If you disagree with my generous invocation of the term “horn,” we still nevertheless have uncovered the biological basis for the myth.

What is your favorite myth or legend? Let me know and I’ll see what I can learn about it for a future blog! I’m looking forward to seeing all you around the Zoo this fall and winter.

Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl