The Wonderful World of Lagomorphs

By Katie Leach   @lagomorpha_

As many of you may already know my research is centred on the (extremely cute!) mammalian Order Lagomorpha. Before I blog about my PhD findings to date I wanted to provide an overview of this amazing group of species and why they are so important for us to study.

Lagomorphs belong to two families: the Ochotonidae and the Leporidae. The Leporidae contains approximately 32 species of hares and jackrabbits in a single genus (Lepus):

Black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)
Black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)

And about 30 species of rabbits in 10 genera (Brachylagus, Bunolagus, Caprolagus, Nesolagus, Oryctolagus, Pentalagus, Poelagus, Pronolagus, Romerolagus and Sylvilagus):

Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis)
Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis)

The Ochotonidae contains one genus (Ochotona) with roughly 25 species of pika:

Large-eared pika (Ochotona macrotis)
Large-eared pika (Ochotona macrotis)

Hares and jackrabbits tend to be large, solitary, cursorial species and have been known to reach speeds of up to 45mph! Rabbits are medium-sized, semi-social, fossorial species which originally came from south west Europe and north west Africa but have been deliberately introduced throughout many other countries. Pikas are small, social, high-latitude and usually high-altitude species, but also have exceptionally high body temperatures (39 -41°C)!

So why are Lagomorphs important?

1)    They are a major human food resource (world output estimated at 1.5 million carcasses!),

2)    Model laboratory animals (European Commission reports >350,000 rabbits used in laboratory experiments in 2011 and together with rodents they represent >80% of total animals used),

3)    Significant agricultural pests (for example rabbits in New Zealand),

4)    Valued game,

5)    Successful invasive species,

6)    And key elements in food chains!

And most importantly for my work, which studies the macroecology of the Order, they are native or introduced on all continents except Antarctica. They occur from sea level to over 5000m in elevation, and occupy latitudes all the way from Australia to the equator to the Arctic!

Distribution of Lagomorphs globally.
Distribution of Lagomorphs globally.

Lagomorphs are known to inhabit tundra, desert, islands, highland, lowland, forests, volcanoes (!), swamps and marshes! The Lower Keys Marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris hefneri  can even swim (so can the swamp rabbit Sylvilagus aquaticus) and is named after Hugh Hefner who funded a study establishing it as a unique subspecies! Spanning a huge range of environmental conditions makes it extremely interesting to study the potential impacts of climate change and general macroecological questions about Lagomorph distributions. But also, considering a quarter of all Lagomorphs are IUCN Red-Listed, studies of their distribution can help direct conservation management for these threatened species now and in the future.

And if that isn’t enough to get you interested in Lagomorphs, pikas have even been recently featured on Life Story with David Attenborough:!

1 comment on The Wonderful World of Lagomorphs

  1. I think the concept of your blog is very interesting. Students can share their ide-as/comments/projects with each other within and outside your university! I am also a PhD student at Uppsala University. I am writing my thesis on genetic diversity in natural and domestic population. I have a section about rabbit domestication based on our publication in Science 2014 “Rabbit genome analysis reveals a polygenic basis for phenotypic change during domestication”. I was looking for a map showing distribution of lagomorph around the globe and I found it on your blog. I was wondering to know if I can used picture you have in following page by referring to your blog in my thesis? If it is fine, do you think I can have a better quality version?

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