Magazine Masthead
category: Paleontology

Biggest Bunny

Post: April 30, 2012 12:49 pm
Author: Paula Mikkelsen         Source: National Geographic News online

The tiny Spanish Mediterranean island of Minorca is rich in diversity of flowers, butterflies, and birds, but today has no large mammals other than humans. Not so, however 3-5 million years ago, when Nuralagus rex (literally "King of the Hares"), a newly described prehistoric rabbit that tipped the scales at 26 pounds (12 kilograms or six times the size of today's largest rabbit), roamed the island. Study leader Josep Quintana, now at the Institut Català de Palentologia in Barcelona, originally found the bones as a teenager. In addition to being substantially larger than modern rabbits, Nuralagus had a stiff spinal column that lacked the flexibility necessary for anything resembling "bunny hopping." Plus, based on parts of its skull, it apparently had relatively small eyes and short, un-rabbit-like ears (suggesting poor eyesight and hearing). Nevertheless, other parts of the skull and teeth of N. rex place it unquestionably within the rabbit Tree of Life, according to Brian Kraatz, an expert on rabbit evolution at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. "Gigantism happens" on islands, which often boast relatively stress-free environments. The chubby, ponderous bunny was likely able to achieve its impressive size because as far as we know, there were no predators on the island at the time that could have brought down this behemoth. In the face of modern environments, today's rabbits are small, spry, and have sharp vision to escape predators. The discovery of N. rex set the paleonews community abuzz at Easter time, spawning clever epithets from Arnold Swarzenbunny to Tubby Thumper to Roly-Poly Beach Bun.

Read more at National Geographic News.

Find the original article in the March issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.