A rabbit, a bunny, and a hare walk into a bar, can you tell them apart? In everyday language, it may seem like these three words can be used interchangeably. But that doesn’t mean that they actually refer to the same animal.
A bunny and a rabbit really are just two names for the same animal. ‘Rabbit’ is the recognized name for over 20 related species in the same Genus. ‘Bunny’ is simply a colloquial term used for the same species, especially when talking about a small or young rabbit.
A hare is a completely different species from a rabbit. Hares are bigger, with longer ears and hind legs. The biggest difference is in their early life stages. Rabbits are born blind and need weeks before they can survive on their own. Hares are born fully developed and ready to be independent.
Despite the differences in anatomy and behavior of these two species, they do look remarkably alike. To make it even more confusing, a jackrabbit is actually a type of hare, and a cottontail rabbit has behaviors that are more similar to hares than rabbits. So what are the differences between these species and how do you know which is which?
Bunny vs. Rabbit
“Rabbit” is the actual and correct English word that is used to describe over 20 different related animal species. These species include the European rabbit, which is the same species as domestic rabbits, as well as a large number of wild rabbits living in climates and cultures around the world.
“Bunny,” on the other hand, is a colloquial term that has no scientific significance. In other words, “bunny” is just a cute word that people use to call a rabbit. Often times this word will be used when people want to emphasize the cuteness of a rabbit, so it is more often used in describing young rabbits or smaller dwarf breeds of rabbit. However, the word “bunny” can really be used to describe any type or age of rabbit.
You might have believed that “bunny” was the word used for a baby rabbit. It sounds similar to the way puppy is used for a young dog, so that seems a logical conclusion. Baby rabbits actually have a different name though. Just like in cats, baby rabbits are called kittens!
Where did the word “bunny” come from?
If “bunny” is not the name for baby rabbits, where did the term come from? It’s so different from the word “rabbit” that it’s hard to imagine how it could become the commonly known nickname.
The exact origin of “bunny” is difficult to trace. There are two main theories I’ve uncovered for how “bunny” and “rabbit” have become associated with each other.
- “Bunny” comes from the original word for rabbit. The original word that was used for “rabbit” in the 13th century was “coney” (pronounced cunny at the time). The word “rabbit” didn’t come around until the 14th century and originally meant “baby rabbit.” By the 1800’s, “rabbit” was being used more often since “coney” sounded like a vulgar word that was rising in popularity. “Bunny,” therefore, may have arisen as an alternate way of pronouncing “coney.”
- “Bunny” comes from the word “bun,” originally meaning rabbit tail. In the 1600-1700s, “bunny” may have arisen from the word “bun” in the Scottish dialect, meaning “hare or rabbit tail.” “Bun” and “bunny” were used as terms of endearment for girls and young women at the time, and so may have also been applied to describe cute rabbits.
Rabbit vs. Hare
Rabbits and hares are not the same animal. Both rabbits and hares are in the family Laporidae and the order lagamorpha, so the two share a lot of similarities, but they represent different Genus and Species. All hares are in the genus Lepus, whereas rabbits represent a handful of other genus in the family lagamorpha.
These two animals have many physical and behavioral differences that help us differentiate between the two different animals. Even though the two are very similar, you’ll be able to tell them apart.
In general, hares will be found in more arid locations than rabbits. Hares will not burrow underground, instead they are surface dwellers. They will take shelter in shallow holes and bushes above ground.
Rabbits do a lot of digging. They live in warrens, and burrow networks of tunnels underground. This generally provides the rabbits with more protection than their cousin hares. Cottontail rabbits, however, are an exception to this rule. Like hares, these rabbits will live and forage above ground and do not gain the protection that underground burrows provide.
Both rabbits and hares can be very prolific. They both have a relatively short gestation period and can have a large number of baby rabbits in a litter. That’s where their similarities end though.
The most distinct difference between rabbits and hares are the differences in how the young are born and cared for. Hares have a longer gestation period and their babies are born with fur and their eyes open. These babies are quickly able to fend for themselves in the wild. This is a necessity for young hares because they don’t have the protection of a burrow that young rabbits have.
Rabbits, on the other hand, have babies that are tiny and helpless. They are blind, deaf, and bald. It will be a number of weeks before newborn rabbit babies are ready to go into the world and fend for themselves.
|Sight||Eyes closed, blind||Eyes open|
|Sound||Ears closed, deaf||Ears open|
|Care||Require many weeks of protection from adult rabbits||Require little care and protection from adult rabbits|
Rabbits and hares have very similar diets. In a difficult situation with scarce or limited resources, the two animals would survive on whatever vegetation is available. However, when there are abundant resources available, rabbit and hare diets will differ just slightly.
Hares will typically choose to eat rougher vegetation, such as roots, bark, twigs, and buds. Alternatively, rabbits will usually prefer to eat softer vegetation. They will love to eat vegetables, grass, and leafy greens with soft stems.
It may look like hares and rabbits are virtually the same in appearance. They both have those long iconic ears, and strong hind legs, but they do have some anatomical differences.
Hares are typically much larger than rabbits. This includes their overall body size, but hares will also have larger ears and feet than a rabbit. The only exceptions are some domestic rabbits that have been bred to be very large. Wild rabbit species are generally very small.
Hares also have a very unique skull. In addition to its distinct shape, hares have a kinetic skull that allows for movement between some of the bones that make up the skull. The purpose of this isn’t fully understood, but it’s believed that the skull helps the hare absorb the impact from the ground as they race around.
Hiders and runners
Rabbits and hares have different tendencies when they are faced with a predator. Hares will try to run. Rabbits will try to hide.
Since hares do not have the protection of underground burrows, they have had to learn how to run very fast to escape predators. The fastest known species of hare, the Jackrabbit, can reach speeds of 45mph. Even fast rabbits will usually only reach speeds of 30mph.
Rabbits are capable of running, for sure, but their main advantage is their ability to hide. Since rabbits have burrows they can escape to, their main defense when faced with predators is to find a way to get back to their burrow and hide, rather than long distance running.
Both rabbits and hares have seasonal shedding patterns. They will grow a thick fur coat for winter and then a thinner coat for summer. Hare coats usually change significantly more in color than rabbit coats though.
In winter rabbits will typically grow a coat that is only a little lighter or greyer than their vibrant summer coat. On the other hand, hares (especially those living in cold environments) usually turn white in the winter.
When it comes to daily life, rabbit and hare behavior is very different. Hares are very isolated animals and spend most of their time alone. They live above ground and fend for themselves. There is rarely any need to cooperate with other hares.
Most of the time hares will not associate with each other unless it’s time to mate, at which point they will pair off. It’s also very rare to find two hares fighting. Most commonly it only occurs when a female hare is trying to let a male know she’s not interested.
Rabbits, on the other hand, live in family warrens and can have a very complex social structure. They live together underground and form a little society that depends on their cooperation. There is usually a hierarchy of rabbits leading up to the most dominant rabbit in the warren.
Rabbits are also very territorial. Any unrelated rabbit that tries to make their way into the warren’s territory will be viciously attacked.
- “Bunny (n.)” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/bunny.
- “Coney (n.)” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/coney.
- Cohen, Robert. “Speed of Rabbit of Hare.” The Physics Factbook. 2001, https://hypertextbook.com/facts/2001/RobertCohen.shtml.
- Langley, Liz. “What’s the Difference Between Rabbits and Hares?” National Geographic. December 19, 2014, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141219-rabbits-hares-animals-science-mating-courtship.
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Why are rabbit ears so long?
As you might expect, a rabbit’s long ears do a lot to improve their hearing. Their ears also play an integral role in helping the rabbit to regulate their body temperature, preventing heat stroke and hypothermia.
How do rabbits survive in winter?
Wild rabbits can do very well with winter temperatures. Their thick, fluffy coats make it much easier for them to withstand the cold temperatures. Unfortunately these rabbits have to compete for food resources. Many wild rabbits are unable to make it through the winter for this reason.