Amami Rabbit with Balanophora yuwanensis, Japan, Year of the Rabbit

Rare Bunnies Are Flagship Species in Year of the Rabbit

Following the Lunar New Year, it’s the year of the Water Rabbit. They are symbols of peace, tranquility, empathy, and introspection following the more impulsive Year of the Tiger. 

“The rabbit is a symbol of intellect and cautiousness. As the lore goes, the rabbit was among the 12 animals who raced to the Jade Emperor in a cosmic contest that ultimately determined the order of the Chinese zodiac signs. Though it was a weak swimmer, the rabbit used its brain, opting to cross the river portion of the course on a raft,” reported NBC News.

The Japanese hare represents a “leap forward,” and “prosperity of offspring,” and is revered in Japanese faith.

In Japan, there are some observances of the Lunar New Year, first introduced to Japan in the sixth century CE. The 12-year cycle of zodiac animals is called Eto in Japan.

Two real-life wild rabbits or usagi from Japan are in the news today. One is a hare of legend, and another is the Amami rabbit, called “a living fossil.” The latter bunny is adorable, black, with short ears and called a fossil because of its similarity to ancient rabbits that once lived on the Asian mainland.

Amami rabbit by Aleš Buček via Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0
Amami rabbit by Aleš Buček via Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0

The Amami Rabbit, a Living Fossil

Today, the black short-eared Amami rabbit is considered a national treasure, the only wild black-furred bunny. However, little is known about them. Only about 5,000 live on two volcanic islands now, “a flagship species for conservation and tourism,” according to the New York Times.

Due to threats from habitat destruction and the introduction of mongooses to kill snakes, the rabbits have been vanishing. 

“In 1979, 30 mongooses were introduced to Amami-Oshima in an attempt to control its population of venomous habu snakes. But the mammals, which are active in the daytime, performed poorly at catching the nocturnal snakes, instead choosing to prey on Amami rabbits and other indigenous species,” reported Japan’s The Mainichi.

Stuffed specimen of Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) by Momotarou2012, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0., rabbits
Stuffed specimen of Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) by Momotarou2012Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

A Favorite Nighttime Snack

Efforts to eradicate the mongoose have since led to some signs of recovery for the 5-pound bunnies. Certainly, it’s a lesson in how complex a species’ impact can be on ecosystems.

Like the poisonous habu vipers, the Amani rabbits are inclined to feed at nighttime. Whether this habit was magnified after the introduction of the mongooses (mongeese?) isn’t known. But recently, local biologists on the islands discovered that the unusual rabbits feed at night on a strange parasitic plant. It seems to be one of their favorite late-night snacks.

As the biologists recently discovered, the rabbits feed on Balanophora yuwanensis, a plant that looks like a red mushroom. The plant creates red globular structures of thousands of individual dry fruits. Each strawberry-like mass is covered by modified leaves that look like tiny red bumps. As a parasite, the plant has no roots and depends on nearby trees to survive. Now we know it also depends on rare bunnies.

Related: Japan’s Mermaid-Like Amabié and a Mummy Awaiting Scientific Analysis

Rabbit and Plant Relationship

There is not much wind in the undergrowth of forests where B. yuwanensis grows. So there is no way to disperse seeds easily. That’s where the black bunnies come in, who make burrows near the trees where the plant grows. The biologists found the bunnies love consuming these unusual plants and effectively disperse the seeds.

Interestingly, the Amami rabbits seem perfectly adapted to dispersing the seeds compared to other rabbit species. Also, they are better than birds since they burrow near the tree roots, which the parasite requires. It’s such a specific symbiotic relationship and the first documented relationship between a mammal and a parasitic plant.

“Using a combination of the wild rabbit droppings and Amami rabbits housed at the Kagoshima Hirakawa Zoo, the scientists found that nearly 55 percent of the B. yuwanensis seeds to pass through the animals’ digestive tracts were still viable. Compared with similar studies of the European rabbit, which show an average of just 5 percent viability with 19 other plant species, it would seem the Amami rabbits have greater success planting new seeds,” wrote the Times.

Balanophora by Kuo-Chu Yueh via Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Balanophora by Kuo-Chu Yueh via Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Bunnies for Biodiversity

Now, ecologist Kenji Suetsugu, from Kobe University in Japan, who led a new study, says it clarifies how vital it is to understand and protect species like the endangered rabbits. There are likely “important benefits for human-well being” in protecting biodiversity.

“The loss of the Amami rabbit could also have a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem,” Suetsuga said.

In an interview with Popular Science, Suetsugu wrote:

“The rabbits likely provide a crucial link between [B. yuwanensis] and its hosts. Such natural history observations greatly enhance our comprehension of ecosystems.”

Below, you can see how infrared cameras caught the Amami rabbits eating the plants.

Disappearing Japanese Hare

Meanwhile, another rabbit making news is the endemic Japanese hare, Lepus brachyurus. The country’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki, mentions the “White Hare of Inaba.” (see video below)

White Hare of Inaba by Aimaimyi via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
White Hare of Inaba by Aimaimyi via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Hares for Harmony

As with the Amami bunnies, the Japanese hares are disappearing. Unfortunately, the hare has been declared an endangered species in the Northern Tama region.

“The Japanese hare is vanishing from green spaces in communities, sending a warning signal that we need to rethink how to coexist in harmony with nature,” writes Japan Forward.

As a symbol of cleverness, introspection and caution, the hare is the perfect symbol of the need to change how people interact with the environment.

“The current situation with the Japanese hare is an opportunity for people to think about how we as humans coexist with other living creatures,” said Taketo Kobayashi.

Lepus brachyurus (Japanese hare) in Tsukuba, Japan. The asphalt is a walkway in a park area by Materialscientist, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Lepus brachyurus (Japanese hare) in Tsukuba, Japan. The asphalt is a walkway in a park area by MaterialscientistWikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Video by Extra Credits:

Featured image: Amami rabbit by Aleš Buček via Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0. with Balanophora by Kuo-Chu Yueh via Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0).