TCS Daily

The Easter Bunny's Fossilized Ancestor

By Erik Baard - March 25, 2005 12:00 AM

The Easter Bunny has been on his way for a long time. An international team of paleontologists has discovered a 55-million year old fossil of a primitive rabbit in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, predating earlier finds by 20 million years.

The find deepens our biological understanding of a creature that plays a leading role in folklore around the world, not least as an Easter symbol of fertility and renewal. But anthropological riddles remain, such as why rabbits are uniquely both adored as pets and slaughtered for meat and fur on an industrial scale. That contradiction is explored in a new book, "Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature."

Much as human origins can be traced to Africa, "lagomorphs, the group that includes rabbits, hares, and pikas, probably originated in Asia, spreading to other parts of the world from there," notes Robert Asher, Curator of Mammals at the Berlin Museum of Natural History and senior author of the paper, which was published in a recent issue of the journal Science. Other authors of the paper are affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, the University of Louisville, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The newly discovered specimen, known as Gomphos elkema, shows that in the early days after the dinosaurs were wiped out by what many scientists are convinced was a comet or asteroid strike, this form of mammal was already literally hopping down the evolutionary trail. "This animal's foot is huge," said Asher. "It's almost the size of its entire arm, like a modern rabbit's foot." 


Gomphos elkema, illustration by Nils Hoff. Courtesy of the Berlin Museum

But as might be expected for such an ancient creature, some key characteristics differed from the latter garden raiders that inspired the tale of Peter Rabbit. Gomphos elkema had a more substantial tail than the small cottontail fluff of rabbits. Its molars and jaw were also unlike modern lagomorphs, bearing some resemblance instead to squirrels. The mix of similar and variant features points to a close relationship between lagomorphs and rodents, according to Asher. Indeed, while it was speculated that lagomorphs might be close kin to a type of mammals called zalambdalestids that thrived before the dinosaur extinction, the team says their find lends support to a classification lumping rabbits, pikas, and hares in with other modern mammals, including humans.

But one difficulty in drawing connections between species is that many attributes associated with rabbits have evolved repeatedly in separate lines. A diet of roots and other vegetable matter will dictate certain tooth formations. And hopping (or bounding -- hopping using all four feet) is an extremely efficient means of locomotion used by frogs, kangaroos, and some insects and rodents. NASA is even funding the development of a hopping robot at Caltech for Mars exploration. So discovering a species with a similar body type to a rabbit doesn't necessarily guarantee that an ancestor has been found.

"The issue is of course not resolved, but theirs is certainly the most recent interpretation," said David Archibald, an evolutionary biologist at San Diego State University in California who has led digs in Central Asia, notably Uzbekistan. His teams have discovered not only zalambdalestids, but also a 90-million year old type of ancestral mammal called zhelestids.

Even murkier than the genetic relationship between humans and rabbits is the cultural one. In folklore spanning Asia, the Americas, and Europe, rabbits have for millennia been seen as both tricksters and timid victims. Today, rabbits of the very same breed are by turns pampered as pets and ruthlessly exploited out of public view.

"Rabbits are more beloved than, say, sheep, chickens, and certainly pigs, regardless of their intelligence, which makes their treatment at the hands of humans that much more astounding," noted Margo DeMello, who holds a PhD in cultural anthropology and is director of the pet-oriented House Rabbit Society. She and journalist Susan E. Davis, a national educator with the Society, co-authored "Stories Rabbits Tell" (Lantern Books, 2005) to explore that paradox.

The fundamental factor in animal treatment, DeMello argues, isn't intelligence or other innate characteristics, but rather "proximity to humans."

Folklore often portrays rabbits and hares as ghostly, and they do seem to be present yet not intimate for much of human history. Their fossils turn up along with those of hominid ancestors in the Olduvai Gorge, and their footprints literally crossed paths with prehumans on fossilized flats of wet volcanic ash in Laetoli, both in Tanzania. Yet ancient carvings and even the magnificent cave paintings of Europe omit them.

"I don't think I have ever seen a rabbit represented in any of that art. But they've got grasshoppers and geese, so it's not like they're just representing herd animals," commented Nicholas Toth, co-founder of Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, Indiana.

But later cultures existing prior to Christianity or outside of it certainly revered rabbits, linking them with the moon, women, and fertility. In a sense, the disregard often shown to rabbits today could be traced to their association to those who are somewhat powerlessness in our own culture -- women and children.

Davis notes that rabbits are far-and-away the most popular livestock animals featured in children's books and "animal kitsch." And the tie to women's sexuality and fertility, through imagery and vulgar slang in some dialects, is ever present.

"In modern times, both women and rabbits continue to be diminished and devalued. The Playboy Bunny is a perfect example of that: a human figure that is half woman, half "bunny," and so is viewed as both sexual plaything and prey," noted Davis.

Erik Baard is a writer living in New York.


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