What is a Jackalope?

Jackalope, Grand Canyon (photo by Free-ers CC-BY)

Jackalope, Grand Canyon (photo by Free-ers CC-BY)

Indigenous to the American West, often considered an extinct or mythical creature, “jackalope” refers to a horned or antlered jackrabbit or cottontail domestic rabbit. First mention of the jackalope in American history appears to come from Douglas, Wyoming where a stuffed specimen was displayed at a local hotel as early as 1829.

Even before that time, in Europe, there was some mention of horned hares. There is a surviving sketch of a horned rabbit dating back to 1574. According to Ernest Thomas Seton in his 1909 “Life-Histories of Northern Game Animals,” “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.”

Today stories about this creature abound, though usually told tongue-in-cheek as most of the storytellers believe the animal is fictitious. “Jackalope hunting” has become a rite of passage similar to snipe hunting, and those “in the know” delight in telling tall tales about jackalopes to the uninformed, enjoying their gullibility. In fact, President Ronald Reagan owned a jackalope head that he was fond of using to play jokes on people, particularly reporters.

In jackalope country, many establishments include a stuffed jackalope or other likeness as part of the decor, often appropriating the name as well, and the proprietors and locals enjoy telling stories about the jaunty jackalope, especially to tourists and other curious souls. Souvenir shops, roadside stands and gas stations sell stuffed jackalope heads, and jackalope statues and likenesses are common. One example is in Wall, South Dakota where the famous Wall Drug boasts a 10-foot fiberglass jackalope. In Austin, Texas , the Austin City Limits festival in 2008 showed off a saddled specimen, big enough to ride.

However, though usually thought of as the stuff of myth and legend and silly stories, the much maligned and laughed-over jackalope may actually be a real animal after all. It seems that rabbits are prone to a disease called papillomatosis, which is caused by a papilloma virus. One particular strain of this virus, the Shope papillomavirus, first reported in medical literature in 1933, causes the growth of tumors in the shape of horns or antlers. The archives at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul hold a number of jars containing preserved remains of rabbits with cranial horn-like tumors.

A map detailing the distribution of the naturally occurring Shope papillomavirus shows a localized concentration in the mid-section of the U.S. and as a natural disease it has only been reported from Southern California, but the actual occurrence of the virus among the U.S. rabbit population is probably much more common, since stories about antlered rabbits are found throughout the country.

Pictures of rabbits afflicted with the Shope papilloma virus are startling, as such animals do indeed appear to have growths on their heads resembling antlers or horns. No, they’re not exactly like the deer antlers often glued onto the ubiquitous doctored jackalope heads, but they’re sure close enough to make one do a double take and conclude that the mythical jackalope may not be quite so mythical after all.

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