Jackalope fans, take note: Your mythical beast really does exist

E-mail to Chuck Holliday hollidac@lafayette.edu or Dan Japuntich danjap7@yahoo.com

jack04 The jackalope, a cottontail or domestic rabbit or jackrabbit mounted with the horns of a young antelope, deer or goat is commonly believed to have originated in the folklore of the American West. A recent obituary in The New York Times attributes the origin of the American Jackalope to Douglas Herrick, a native of Douglas, Wyoming, in 1939. However, Dan Simberloff (1987, see the “Jackalope References” link at the bottom of this page) notes that local legend has it that the original jackalope was displayed in 1829 by the owner of a Douglas hotel, LeRoy Ball, although this seems about 50 years early for a hotel to be built in Douglas, which was incorporated in 1887. Kreider and Bartlett (1981) also note: “Horned jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits were known to the pioneers of the western plains and were first described in popular hunting and fishing magazines in the early 1900′s.” Ernest Thompson Seton published in 1909 his Life-Histories of Northern Game Animals, in which he included a drawing of the head of what was certainly a mounted jackalope, shown to him by a Chicago gentleman. Seton also reported seeing diseased cottontail rabbits in the American West that had growths resembling horns.

Jackalope postcards have been available since the 1930′s and several towns have offered jackalope hunting licenses as novelties. Douglas, Wyoming, even has an annual festival, Jackalope Days, on the second Friday and Saturday of June each year. The Governor of the State of Wyoming in 1985 proclaimed Douglas to be the “Home of the Jackalope.” Mounted heads of this legendary animal are offered for sale at truck stops, roadside restaurants (and now on the www) all over the country and Wall Drug has a ten-foot fiberglass jackalope on display. Even a U.S. President has owned a mounted jackalope. There are also several www sites devoted to jackalopes and they are occasionally covered in popular articles. Like snipe hunts, jackalope hunts have been used as a ritual form of hazing in rural communities.

48K gif image of several hares by HoefnagleHowever, a far older reference to a horned hare (Lepus cornutus in Latin) is shown in the picture on the right. It was painted by Joris Hoefnagel in the late 1570′s. Albrecht Durer aficionados will note Hoefnagel’s copy of Durer’s famous hare at the left of this picture (see it in it’s full glory at The National Gallery of Art www site.) The Keio University Digital Research Library has a digitized copy of the 1606 edition of Conrad Gesner’s Thierbuch (a German version of his Historia Animalium Liber I: De Quadrupedibus Viviparis by Konrad Forer, first published in 1563) and it also contains a figure of Lepus cornutus. Manda Jost of Harvard University tells me (7/99) that there is another old European publication, Physica Curiosa,by P. Gaspar Schott (1667), which details horned hares on its frontispiece and in the text. Schott’s illustrator copied the two horned hares by Matthaeus Merian in Johannes Jonstonus’s Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium (1650). Thanx, Manda, and thanx to Dan Japuntich for scanning these pictures and doing the www research to find them!

Even the famous Encyclopedie Methodique volume of plates published in 1789 has a figure of a horned hare by Robert Benard (on left); this figure is a copy of an engraving which first apeared in Jacob Klein’s Summa Dubiorum Circa Classes Quadrupedum et Amphibiorum in 1743. Many thanks to Erwin Pokorny for giving us the correct chronology and sources for most of the works cited above (10/03). Thus, many of the naturalists of the 16th through 18th centuries believed that horned rabbits really existed. Interestingly, the writer Francois Rabelais seems not to have believed in horned hares: In the prologue to Gargantua (1534), Rabelais notes that “Silenes of old were little painted boxes, like those we now may see in the shops of apothecaries, painted on the outside with wanton toyish figures, as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, thiller harts, and other suchlike counterfeited pictures at discretion, to excite people unto laughter …”

48K gif image of the mythic rasselbock48K gif image of the mythic rauracklPerhaps immigrants to the U.S. from Europe brought the idea of the horned hare with them and this has evolved into our modern jackalope. This notion is strengthened by the fact that illustrations of horned hares were included in the Encyclopedie Methodique (1782-1832) and in some 18th century German schoolbooks and would, thus, have been known to many people through their schooling. More modern huntsmen’s tales about European horned hares also exist: the Austrian raurackl, the Bavarian wolpertinger (a composite animal with horns and parts from hares and other animals, see Wiedemann, 2000, for it’s origin), the Thuringian rasselbock shown on the left, and the dilldapp in Switzerland; all from the 19th or 20th centuries). Again, our thanks to Erwin Pokorny for the links above, the names and homes of the many mythical European horned hares, the picture of his own raurackl (right) and the reference to al Qazwini below. In 2004 Pokorny published a scholarly article on horned hares in the catalog of an art exhibition about courtly hunting in Tyrol: Herrlich Wild – Hoefische Jagd in Tirol, Ambras Castle, Innsbruck 2004, pp. 64-80. This article is a treasure trove of material on horned hares and has a wealth of interesting figures; a formal reference is included here. It also introduces the interesting possibility that, because the first European reference to a horned hare was made in 1517, Europeans returning from the New World may have brought the Shope papillomavirus with them and, thus, infected their native hares (more on the Shope papillomavirus below). A second work was also published in 2004 in Dutch by Erwin Kompanje and presented many of the same ideas and pictures from the old literature.

The Persian scholar, Zakariya Ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini (1203-1283, also known as the “Moslem Pliny”) produced a geographic dictionary, Kitab ‘aja’ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara’ib al-mawjudat, (Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing) in which he presented a legend about Alexander the Great’s adventures on an island in the China Sea, “Tinnin”. Alexander is said to have helped the islanders to kill a dragon by feeding it poisoned cattle. The grateful islanders gave Alexander several gifts, including a large and ferocious yellow animal with black spots and a dark horn (shown on left). Although al Qazwini did not give the animal a name, other medieval Muslim scholars copied his manuscript and called the animal “al Miradj”, a horned hare, and added an appropriate illustration. However, Michel Wiedemann (2000) makes a good case for a translator’s error changing “monoceros” (Greek for rhinoceros) into al Qazwini’s “hare” in the later, copied manuscripts. Thus, what Alexander really got from the legendary islanders may have been a rhinoceros or a unicorn (note the spiral horn), either one a truly inconvenient gift to give someone on a long sea voyage!

Dan Japuntich has found a truly ancient reference to a horned rabbit (an absurd one in this case – a Dharma Bunny?) in the Bhuddist Dharmas. For example, in the Shurangama Sutra, Volume 1, Part Two, Sutra text:

Page 159: The Buddha said to Ananda, “You say that the mind with its aware nature that perceives and makes discriminations is not located anywhere at all. Everything existing in the world consists of space, the waters, and the land, the creatures that fly and walk, and all external objects. Would your non-attachment also exist? Page 160: “If it did not exist, it would be the same as fur on a tortoise or horns on a rabbit. Just what would that non-attachment be?”

It’s tempting to opine that, if the Buddha and his disciples had spent a little less time trying to negate themselves and to focus inward, they might have actually seen a few horned rabbits (see below) and used a different simile.

Finally, and of most interest to me, Dan Japuntich has informed me (7/98) that there is a papillomavirus which can cause horn-like growths on rabbits’ heads, so there really are rabbits which, at a distance, appear to have horns. Such animals are probably responsible for the jackalope, raurackl, rasselbock, wolpertinger, dilldapp and similar legends in the U.S., Europe and in African folk tales and for the belief in the existence of horned hares by naturalists in the 16th through 18th centuries. I have also just discovered (10/03) Dan Simberloff’s excellent article (Natural History, August 1987, p. 50) and the paper by Kreider and Bartlett (1981) which present the same notion, as does the excellent 1989 article by Jill Leslie Furst in Journal of Latin American Lore, 15(1): 137-149. Details and references to the scientific and popular literature are noted below by Dan Japuntich (distilled from several e-mails we have exchanged and posted with his permission as well as being updated 7/99 and 10/00). Thanks, Dan!


By Dan Japuntich (dajapuntich@yahoo.com)

Many years ago I was taking my 32K gif image of a real children through the Science Museum of Minnesota in St, Paul. One of the biology exhibits showed jars of cottontail rabbits with cranial tumors shaped like horns, and these were presented with reference to the Jackalope legend. About 6 years ago, during a cottontail population boom in St. Paul, I was riding my bike along the Mississippi River and saw a number of rabbits in a meadow. At least two of them had growths on their heads. We are in rabbit population-boom years here in Minnesota (1998-99), and when I recently mentioned to some of my co-workers that these are good jackalope finding summers, they looked at me as if I was pulling their legs. I had thought that this knowledge about real horned rabbits as related to the Jackalope legend (the “raurackl”, stag-hare legend in Germany) was fairly common. When I decided to research the subject, I found very little on the web. I did, however, come across Chuck Holliday’s web page, where he has kindly attached this evolving article on horned bunnies and hares.

The center specimen in Hoefnagel’s c. late 1550′s copy of Albrecht Durer’s famous rabbit picture looks just like the rabbits in the Science Museum of St. Paul and like the ones I saw on my bike ride. They do not look exactly like the taxidermist-modified rabbit jackalopes with deer antlers, but are close enough to make one do a double take. A good example of a real cottontail jackalope photograph from O.B. Lee (1965) is shown at the right. Gaspar Schott’s (1667, p. 900) Lepores cornuti plate shows horned hares and treats them as a separate species, but a look at the horns shows them to be non-uniform and more like tumors. (Thanks to Manda Clair Jost for spotting the Schott plate and giving me a chance to play in the Rare Books Libraries, and, by the way, I am getting a translation of Schott’s Latin text).

NOTE: More pictures of real jackalopes (cottontail rabbits infected with the Shope papillomavirus) are available here.

In June 1998, I called the Science Museum of MN resident biologist, Richard Oehlenschlager, who said that, while the old specimens are not on display at this time, they are still in the museum archives. He identified the tumors as being caused by a papillomavirus. This prompted me to do a little more investigation about papillomaviruses. I condensed my findings and added to the information contained in the class notes for PAT 707, Pathology of Laboratory Animals prepared by Trenton R. Schoeb, Department of Comparative Medicine University of Alabama at Birmingham; this information is no longer available on the www.

The growth of rabbit tumors in the shape of horns or antlers is a common rabbit disease called papillomatosis, caused by a papillomavirus. A papillomavirus is the same sort of disease that causes the growth of warts on humans. The disease is very common in cottontails.

The agent causing the growth of tumors in the shape of horns on the head of rabbits is the Shope papillomavirus, which was first reported in Shope (1933) (Genus Papillomavirus, family Papovaviridae). It is a natural disease in cottontail rabbits (the natural hosts, Sylvilagus floridanus) and is most common in Midwest and Great Plains states. Jackrabbits (Lepus sp.) are also susceptible. Since horned rabbit legends occur in America, Europe and Asia, it probably has a wide distribution. In the U.S.A., the distribution is shown in the included Kreider and Bartlett (1981) map, and the reasons responsible for this localization are unknown. As a natural disease in domestic rabbits it has been reported only from Southern California. Natural transmission probably occurs mostly via the rabbit tick Haemaphysalis leporis-palustris according to C.L. Larson (1936). Mosquitoes and reduviid bugs can also transmit and are a more likely source of infection in commercial rabbitries. In Minnesota, the horns are predominantly found on the head and neck, a location consistent with the passage of biting insects (Larson et al.,1936), while in Kansas they are predominant on the perineum on the rabbits’ behind, but can occur on the head as well.

The study of Shope papillomavirus58k jpeg image of infected rabbits as a viral cause of cancer has been ongoing for over 50 years, since one of its analogs in humans is genital warts. John Kreider, MD and other researchers at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine have been using rabbits and this virus in research on cancer. The objective of their research program is two-fold: to determine the contribution of human papillomaviruses (HPV) to the development of uterine cervical cancer and to develop effective means for the prevention and treatment of infections. Kreider just recently retired, but he and his researchers eventually did develop a vaccine for HPV’s. Other research into Shope papillomavirus is extensive, including DNA analyses of its forms. William Phelps (1985) did extensive work on the Shope virus by trapping wild cottontails in Minnesota and identifying two major viral-specific RNA species.

In his comprehensive review of the subject, Kreider (1981) included one of the original plates showing the “jackalope” specimens the great naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton (1937) had drawn during his early excursions (picture on right). According to the newspaper accounts referenced below, in 1990 the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas had an exhibit and a traveling road-show dealing with real jackalopes. This should come as no surprise, since John Kreider had numerous correspondence with E.R. Hall, one of the museum’s mammalogists. According to Tom Swearingen, a director at the Museum, they have many interesting mounted specimens, and perhaps they will lend some images and history to this article. I have also talked again recently (7/99) with Richard Oehlenschlager at the Science Museum of MN, and he says he has a donated jackalope in his freezer. I will see if I can get some pictures.

We are in another rabbit population boom this year (1998) in St, Paul, and I’m going to be on the look-out for more jackalopes down near the Mississippi. This time I’m bringing my camera.

A note from Dan added 10/16/00 reads: I want you to know that we had two jackalope sightings in St. Paul this summer, but I have yet to get more than a distant picture of one. We have an overabundance of bunnies this year. Interestingly, the bunnies along the Mississippi River near my house have all but disappeared.

More pictures of real jackalopes (cottontail rabbits infected with the Shope papillomavirus) are available here.

A final note from Chuck: As it turns out, horns may be found in unusual places on a wide variety of normally-horned and hornless mammals, including humans (picture at left; source). They arise, as in rabbits, at the sites of benign, precancerous or cancerous skin growths, usually on sun-exposed skin, and are composed of keratin, the structural material in fingernails. The first report of such a human horn occurs in the European literature in 1599, and a much better-documented horn was received by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 1685. This horn was one of several grown and shed by Mary Davis, then 69 years old. The original figure of Ms. Davis and her horn may be seen here and is also shown in an article by A. McGregor (1983). Two medical www sites present detailed information on human cutaneous horns; here, and here. Finally, there is the rare, truly nasty and apparently genetically-based Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia, caused by infection with a human papilomavirus and subsequent exposure to sunlight. Shown at right is a picture of the hands of a person afflicted with it.

Updated 4/6/10

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