Bunnies weren't born yesterday

The recent paper authored by Evan Irving-Pease, Laurent Frantz, Naomi Sykes, Cécile Callou and Greger Larson has challenged the mythology surrounding the domestication of rabbits. Published in Ecology & Evolution, the paper outlines a much more complex picture of rabbit domestication as a continuum, rather than a short series of historically localised events.

The story goes like this: rabbits were domesticated by monks in 600 A.D., after an edict from Pope Gregory declared that it was acceptable to eat fetal rabbits, known as laurices, during Lent. The problem is, it isn’t true – something that archaeologists Evan Irving-Pease and Greger Larson accidentally discovered while trying to test how well the molecular clock method works for genetically dating domestication.

This method compares the genomes of a domestic rabbit and a modern wild one to determine how long it took for them to diverge. Larson hoped to match the domestication date indicated by the rabbits’ genomes to the date suggested by the historical record: 600 A.D. But the molecular clock method indicated a date during the last ice age, before the very first domesticated animals.

His team’s analysis of these results suggested that the wild rabbits they used simply don’t share a recent ancestor with the domestic ones we know and love. But archaeological records, which look for changes in the skeletal structure of the domesticated rabbit, point to the 17th or 18th century, when modern pet-keeping began. And upon closer examination of historical records, the 600 A.D. story of the laurices fell apart.

Greger Larson explains: 'The origins of many of our domestic animals make for great bed-time stories, but these myths need to be questioned so that we can really figure out how we got so close to so many pets and livestock... What was really interesting to me was why nobody has really thought about it or been critical about it. We really have trouble appreciating slow, continuous change over long periods of time, even though that’s how most change happens. Our narrative structures work much better if you have a eureka moment.’

Read the paper here.

See the University of Oxford's story here.

Listen to Greger Larson discuss bunnies with the CellPress Podcast here.

See more of the extensive media coverage here.