FEB 16, 2018 6:03 PM PST

Myth Meets Reality: The Truth About Bunny Domestication

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

There is a well-known story about the domestication of the rabbit, but new research shows that it may simply be a myth. Reporting in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, scientists have used archaeological records and genetic tools to find out more about how it went down, but their methods have turned up several potential timeframes during which domestication may have occurred. Rather than being uninterpretable data, the investigators have instead suggested that domestication did not happen suddenly, but was a continuum. 

Rabbits were likely domesticated over a period of time, rather than at once in a sudden event. / Image credit: Pixabay

The legend goes that monks domesticated rabbits in 600 A.D., after Pope Gregory declared in an edict that fetal rabbits were acceptable as dinner during Lent. But archaeologists from the University of Oxford, Evan Irving-Pease and Greger Larson, found that tale was false. Their discovery was an accidental finding made as they were testing the integrity of a method for genetically dating domestication, using a molecular clock (which is explained in the video below).

In that technique, wild genomes are compared to domestic ones to learn how long it took for them to differentiate. They thought they would match up with the 600 A.D. date through the molecular clock method. Instead, the tool indicated that it happened during the last ice age before any animals were even domesticated.

That indicated to the researchers that wild rabbits used for their analysis don’t share a recent common ancestor with domestic bunnies. Skeletal samples used by archaeologists suggested that the domestication event happened sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Then, a critical study of the historical records debunked the Pope Gregory story. 

"I had cited it, colleagues of mine had cited it, it's all over Wikipedia, it's all over the web... but it turns out that the modern story is a complete house of cards," Larson noted. "What was really interesting to me then was why nobody's really thought about it or been critical about it."

He suggested that it is a part of human nature to create storylines. "We really have trouble appreciating slow, continuous change over long periods of time," Larson says, even though that's how most change happens. "Our narrative structures work much better if you have a eureka moment." 

Human culture has likely had a major impact on rabbits in many ways, the researchers hypothesized. Hunting, the movement of people who took rabbits along with them, and breeding activities all probably had an influence. 

"For the vast majority of human existence, no one said, 'I am going to grab this wild organism and bring it into captivity and, voila, I will create a domestic one,'" Larson suggested. "If you want to divide the continuum into a dichotomy of wild and domestic, you can do that, but you have to know that it's necessarily going to be arbitrary."

Larson said that it may be time to reconsider what it means to domesticate an animal and whether humans have carried it out purposefully. The team wants to continue their research on plants and animals we rely on. "We have been slightly arrogant," noted Irving-Pease. "We know a hell of a lot less about the origins of the things that matter most to us than we think we do."

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! Via Cell Press, Trends in Ecology & Evolution

About the Author
BS
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
SEP 19, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
Some Gene Variants May Encourage Active or Sedentary Lifestyles
SEP 19, 2022
Some Gene Variants May Encourage Active or Sedentary Lifestyles
There is still a lot of debate about how much a person's genes influence their behavior. Twin studies are one way to hel ...
SEP 23, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
Modern Humans Make More Neurons Than Neanderthals
SEP 23, 2022
Modern Humans Make More Neurons Than Neanderthals
Scientists have been searching for an answer to the question of what makes us human for decades. Many have looked to our ...
OCT 18, 2022
Immunology
T Cell Deficiency Leaves Some Vulnerable to Infection
OCT 18, 2022
T Cell Deficiency Leaves Some Vulnerable to Infection
The mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) bacteria can be found everywhere, so almost everyone breathes some of it in occasi ...
OCT 29, 2022
Coronavirus
Extreme Evolution - WHO Now Tracking Over 300 Omicron Subvariants
OCT 29, 2022
Extreme Evolution - WHO Now Tracking Over 300 Omicron Subvariants
As the pandemic has progressed, different variants of SARS-CoV-2 have arisen. Now Omicron subvariants are proliferating, ...
NOV 20, 2022
Genetics & Genomics
Researchers Find Gene Expression Differences in ADHD Brains
NOV 20, 2022
Researchers Find Gene Expression Differences in ADHD Brains
ADHD is one of the most common mental health conditions, and it is estimated to impact 5 - 8% of boys, according to the ...
DEC 01, 2022
Microbiology
Unusual Fungi - Ancient Creatures on Their Own Branch of Evolution
DEC 01, 2022
Unusual Fungi - Ancient Creatures on Their Own Branch of Evolution
This exotic new group of fungi includes these odd "earth tongue" organisms / (Photo: Alan Rockefeller, CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Loading Comments...