Rabbits, hares, and pikas, collectively known as lagomorphs, are known for their floppy ears, bushy tails and impressive hopping ability. But there's more to lagomorphs than fluffy fur and a bouncy gait. Rabbits, hares, and pikas are versatile mammals that have colonized a wide range of habitats throughout the world. They serve as prey for many species and as such play an important role in the food webs they occupy.
In this article, you'll learn interesting facts about rabbits, hares, and pikas and find out about their unique characteristics, their life cycle, and their evolutionary history.
Lagomorphs are divided into 2 basic groups
Lagomorphs are a group of mammals that includes two basic groups, the pikas, and the hares and rabbits.
Pikas are small, rodent-like mammals with short limbs and rounded ears. When they crouch down, they have a compact, almost egg-shaped profile. Pikas prefer cold climates throughout Asia, North America and Europe. They often inhabit mountainous landscapes.
Hares and rabbits are small to medium-sized mammals that have short tails, long ears, and long hind legs. They have fur on the soles of their feet, a characteristic that gives them added traction when running. Hares and rabbits have acute hearing and good night vision, both adaptations to the crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyles of many of the species in this group.
There are about 80 species of lagomorphs
There are about 50 species of hares and rabbits. Well-known species include the European hare, snowshoe hare, Arctic hare and eastern cottontail. There are 30 species of pikas. Today, pikas are less diverse than they were during the Miocene.
Lagomorphs were once thought to be a group of rodents
Lagomorphs were once classified as a subgroup of rodents due to similarities in physical appearance, the arrangement of teeth and their vegetarian diet. But today, scientists believe that most similarities between rodents and lagomorphs are the result of convergent evolution and not due to shared ancestry. For this reason, lagomorphs have been promoted within the mammalian classification tree and now ran astride rodents as an order in their own right.
Lagomorphs are among the most intensely hunted of any animal group
Lagomorphs serve as prey for a wide variety of predator species around the world. They are hunted carnivores (such as bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes) and predatory birds (such as eagles, hawks, and owls). Lagomorphs are also hunted by humans for sport.
Lagomorphs have adaptations that enable them to elude predators
Lagomorphs have large eyes that are positioned on either side of their head, giving them a field of vision that encircles them completely. This gives lagomorphs a better chance of spotting approaching predators since they have no blind spots. Additionally, many lagomorphs have long back legs (enabling them to run quickly) and claws and fur-covered feet (which give them good traction). These adaptations give lagomorphs a better chance of escaping predators that get too close for comfort.
Lagomorphs are absent from only a few terrestrial regions throughout the world
Lagomorphs inhabit a range that includes North America, Central America, parts of South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In some parts of their range, especially islands, they were introduced by humans. Lagomorphs are absent from Antarctica, parts of South America, Indonesia, Madagascar, Iceland and parts of Greenland.
Lagomorphs are herbivores
Lagomorphs eat plants of various forms including grasses, fruits, seeds, herbs, buds, leaves and even bits of bark they strip off of deciduous and coniferous trees. They are also notorious for eating cultivated plants such as grains, cabbage, clover, and carrots. Since the plant foods they eat are nutrient-poor and difficult to digest, lagomorphs eat their droppings, thus causing the food material to pass through their digestive tract twice to maximize the number of nutrients they are able to extract.
Lagomorphs have high reproductive rates
Reproductive rates for lagomorphs are generally quite high. This offsets the high mortality rates they often face due to harsh environments, disease, and intense predation.
The largest lagomorph is the European hare
The European hare is the largest of all lagomorphs, reaching weights of between 3 and 6.5 pounds and lengths of more than 25 inches.
The smallest lagomorphs are the pikas
Pikas include the smallest of all lagomorphs. Pikas generally weigh between 3.5 and 14 ounces and measure between 6 and 9 inches long.