ASK THE EXPERTS:Is The Jackalope Real?
Cody M. Rhoden
Small Game Biologist, KDFWR
ANSWER: The short answer is: in a way, yes!
The long answer is less thrilling and more scientifically rooted in reality, but should we take a moment and believe in an antlered hare species hoping around a lumbering sasquatch on the banks of Loch Ness? I think so! The long answer: the jackalope is a name given to a rabbit with antlers (antlers like that of a white-tailed deer). The name and likeness of this seemingly mythical creature was popularized in the American West around the 1930’s through creative taxidermy work.
But since we have elected for the long answer, let’s start in the year 1558! The final touches are being put on a first-of-its-kind document, the Historiae animalium (History of the Animals) in Zurich, Switzerland. This book was to be a complete tome of all the living creatures on Earth, complete with illustrations and some life history of each species of animal. Within this book is listed a species of hare, the Lepus cornutus or horned hare. Guess who this horned hare looked like?! You guessed it, the jackalope.
It should also be mentioned the Historiae animalium included a unicorn as well, but we will leave that for a future Ask the Experts question! Now, let’s fast forward to the American Midwest in 1932, renowned virus hunter Richard Shope identified a virus responsible for a very interesting form of papillomas in wild cottontail rabbits. This papillomas (another word for warts or wartlike protrusions) occurred on the head and face of infected rabbits and could become rather large and hornlike! Richard Shope humbly names the affliction Shope Papilloma Virus.
There are many viruses that cause papilloma or warts in most terrestrial mammals, consider the 100 plus variants of human papillomavirus (think small warts on your hands or feet that go away in time). A study in western Kentucky in 1983, revealed 4% of rabbits tested harbored cutaneous papillomas, not quite Shope papillomas, but skin warts none the less. Also consider the fact that we call male rabbits “bucks” and female rabbits “does.”
Given all these facts, is it a stretch to consider the possibility of a horned swamp rabbit in the deep bottomland forests of far western Kentucky or a horned eastern cottontail roaming a ridgetop in the vast forestland of southeast Kentucky? I would like to think it is a possibility, however unfortunate, it may be explained by a simple virus at fw.ky.gov/disease.