Rabbits are almost universally recognized for their long, iconic ears. Whether you’re making shadow puppets with your hands, or looking at those ears poking out of a magician’s hat, we all know this symbol of a cute little bunny rabbit. But did you ever stop to wonder why rabbits have such big ears?
Why do rabbits have long ears? 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.
Many aspects of a rabbit’s body have helped them to become an excellent survival species. As prey animals, they have ways of detecting predators from miles away, and they have learned to adapt to many different habitats. At this point, rabbits have overtaken every continent except Antarctica. Believe it or not, their ears have been incredibly important in their adaptation and survival as a species.
Body temperature regulation
One of the two main functions of rabbit ears is to help them regulate their body temperature. A rabbit’s ears generally have thinner fur, along with a network of small blood vessels running up the outer ear. This means that rabbit ears are able to facilitate a majority of the necessary heat exchange with their body. The blood vessels will expand on hot days, to give off heat, and contract on cold days, to maintain their body temperatures.
Rabbits and other lagomorphs (including hares and pikas) that live in dryer and hotter temperatures tend to have bigger ears. They need a larger surface area on their ears to release more heat and avoid heat stroke.
What does it mean when a rabbit’s ears are hot or cold?
Because rabbit ears are able to regulate their body temperature, they will often fluctuate in temperature and feel hot or cold to the touch. When a rabbit is hot, their ears will get warm as they release heat. When a rabbit is cold, their ears will start to feel noticeably cool to the touch.
For the most part, changes is ear temperature are normal and nothing to worry about. However, very hot or very cold ears can also be an indication that the rabbit is struggling to maintain their body temperature. If a rabbit’s ears are hot to the touch and turning red, this means they are starting to overheat and are in danger of developing heat stroke. Likewise, if a rabbit’s ears are freezing cold and turning pale in color, then they are at risk of hypothermia. In extreme cases, the ears can become so cold that they get frostbite and fall off.
The better to hear you with
Rabbit ears are also designed for excellent hearing. Interestingly, the distance that rabbits can hear is not much better than a human’s ability within the lower frequencies of sound that they can hear. However, rabbits can detect high pitched sounds up to 2 miles away. These are sound frequencies that would be completely inaudible to the human ear.
The real advantage that rabbit ears give is their directional hearing. Rabbit ears can move and swivel completely independently from each other. Each ear can rotate up to 270º. This gives rabbits the ability to pinpoint exactly where a sound is coming from. Without moving any other part of their body, a rabbit’s ears can hear from any direction. They will always know when something is coming, and exactly what direction it’s coming from.
Lop eared rabbits
Did you ever wonder why you never really see lop eared rabbits in the wild? This is because their ears are not as good at either of the two main functions of rabbit ears. They can’t move their ears around as easily as uppity-eared rabbits, and their ears have a harder time regulating their body temperature.
The mutation for lop eared rabbits has been recorded and does occasionally occur in the wild, but it is incredibly rare. Instead, these rabbits have mostly been bred by humans for their cute appearance. There are only a handful of recognized rabbit breeds that have lop ears, but they are very popular as pets because of their tendency to have friendly and puppy-like personalities.
The anatomy of the rabbit ear
Although we think of rabbit ears as being the long, visible outer ear, there are three main sections of a rabbit’s ear: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear.
- Outer ear: The outer ear, also known as the pinna, is what we typically imagine when we think of a rabbit ear. This section of the ear is responsible for regulating the rabbit’s body temperature and swiveling to detect and locate the direction of sounds.
- Middle ear: The middle ear is where the eardrum is located. This is where sounds that are collected from the outer ear are transferred to the inner ear and ultimately to the brain. This section of the ear even has the ability to decrease the volume of sounds that are too loud, so that they don’t damage the delicate inner ear.
- Inner ear: The inner ear has membrane sections with hair-like structures that correlate with the many different sound frequencies rabbits can hear. It is able to parcel this information and pass it onto the brain. The inner ear is also responsible for the rabbit’s balance and the orientation of their body.
Health concerns for rabbit ears
While rabbit ears are amazing organs that play an important role in their day-to-day life, they are also susceptible to some dangerous infections. If left untreated, these illnesses can be painful for the rabbit, and lead to much more serious diseases.
The outer ear can be infected by a parasite known as ear mites. This tiny insects climb into the rabbits ear canal and cause painful crusting on the rabbits ear. If left untreated, this infestation could result in a much more serious ear infection. Symptoms of ear mites include:
- Excessive scratching at their ears
- Frequently shaking their head
- Thick brown crusting on their ears
- Scratch marks or thinning fur on their ears
- Drooping ears
- Inflamed ears
Ear mites are spread through contact with another infected animal, so the best prevention is to make sure you wash your hands and clothing before you handle your rabbit. This is especially important if you have interacted with another rabbit. This is even a best practice if there are no symptoms of ear mites showing. The early signs are very difficult to see.
Head tilt is a symptom of many different illnesses, from the rabbit cold to a stroke. This is when a rabbit’s body orientation gets confused and imbalanced. They will continuously be tilting their head about 90º to the side, and sometimes they will hop in circles, disoriented.
Head tilt occurs because of damage, pressure, or an infection in the inner ear. The rabbit no longer has a clear idea of where they are in space, and their muscles compensate incorrectly because of the confused perception.
Sometimes head tilt is cure-able, and the rabbit will return to normal after a cycle of antibiotics. But sometimes it is more permanent, especially if the head tilt occurred as the result of a more serious condition (like a stroke). In these cases, the rabbit can often still live a happy life. Their living conditions will need to be adjusted to compensate for their disability.
Buildup of wax
Rabbits are also susceptible to a build up of wax within their ear canals. Most of the time, the rabbit will be able to dig out any excess wax with their toenails. But if pushed too deep, the wax can become impacted and continue to build up. This can eventually lead to a serious ear infection if it is not dealt with in a timely manner.
The buildup of wax is much more common in lop eared rabbits. Their ears are oriented in a way that makes it easy for the wax to clump up along the base of the ear canal in the middle ear. Many lop-eared rabbit caretakers, myself included, have to learn how to clean out the rabbit’s ears every week or two.
Understanding rabbit body language with their ears
Really understanding rabbit body language will require you to pay attention to their entire body, from their cute wiggling noses to the tip of the cotton ball tails. But rabbit ears are the easiest cue to understand.
- A confident rabbit will have their ears up, but not stiff.
- Curious or cautious rabbits will have ears leaning forward or pointed in the direction of the sound or object they are curious about.
- When a rabbit is relaxed, their ears will be gently laying back on their body.
- An angry or threatened rabbit will pull their ears back at a 45º angle and will likely growl or lunge forward to scare you away.
Rabbit breeds with short ears
While most rabbits have long ears, there are some small rabbit breeds that are actually known for their short, kitten-like ears. These rabbits generally do not do well in hot climates, since their ears don’t do a great job at keeping them cool. The small size of these rabbits also helps to make the small ears possible, since the rabbit doesn’t have as much body mass to cool down.
- Britannia Petite: These rabbits are one of the most elegant and energetic of the small breeds. Their ears aren’t as short as many others on this list, but they are still proportionally shorter than most other breeds of rabbit.
- Dwarf Hotot: Known for their gorgeous, eyeliner eyes, these tiny, white rabbits also have very short ears.
- Jersey Wooly: Bred from Netherland Dwarfs, this breed inherited their short ears alongside the fabulous wool coat of a French Angora rabbit.
- Netherland Dwarf: As the smallest and most well known dwarf breed of rabbit, these cuties have big eyes and very small ears.
- Polish: This is an old breed of rabbit that is typically only a little bigger than the Netherland Dwarf. They have a small head with small ears to go with it.
The rabbit tail has mainly evolved as a way for rabbits to evade predators. They can flash their white tail for the predator to follow, but then quickly hide their tail and change directions to confuse the trailing animal. Rabbits also use their tails as signals to communicate with other rabbits in their family warren.
Rabbit noses wiggle to help them stimulate their scent receptors and have a better sense of smell. The nose also plays an important role in regulating the rabbit’s body temperature along with their long ears.
- Fayez I., Marai M., Alnaimy A., Habeeb M. “Thermoregulation in rabbits.” In : Baselga M. (ed.), Marai I.F.M. (ed.). Rabbit production in hot climates. Zaragoza : CIHEAM, 1994. p. 33-41 (Cahiers Options Méditerranéennes; n. 8). Accessed: ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/c08/95605277.pdf.
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- “How Rabbits Hear: The Long and Short of Bunny Ears.” Calgary Humane Society. September 9, 2015, https://www.calgaryhumane.ca/how-rabbits-hear-the-long-and-short-of-bunny-ears.
- “Large Ears Used to Cool Off: Black-Tailed Jackrabbit.” AskNature. July 21, 2017, https://asknature.org/strategy/large-ears-used-to-cool-off/#.XeUuPjJKgWp.
- Rickel, Jana. “Rabbit Ears: A Structural Look: Injury or Disease Can Send Your Rabbit Into a Spin.” House Rabbit Society. https://rabbit.org/journal/4-11/ear.html.
- “Why Do Rabbits Have Big Ears?” Reference. https://www.reference.com/pets-animals/rabbits-big-ears-d060930fd6b5c902.