One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Is a rabbit a rodent?
No, rabbits and hares are members of the family Leporidae, one of the two families (the other is the Ochotonidae or pika family) in the order Lagomorpha. However, had this question been asked over 100 years ago, the answer would have been ‘yes’. Until the early 20th century, zoologists classified the rabbit and other lagomorphs (as members of the order Lagomorpha are known) within the order Rodentia (rodents), which includes rats, mice, squirrels, and marmots.
What’s the difference between lagomorphs and rodents? Rabbits, hares, and pikas are distinct from rodents in various respects, for example they have four incisor teeth (rather than two) and they are almost completely herbivorous (whereas many rodents also eat meat).
Rabbits are gregarious burrowing animals with long ears, long hind legs, and a short white bushy tail. Although there are several genera and species within the Leporidae family, the animal we typically keep as a pet (and also serve up in casseroles or use for its fur) is the European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus.
Cuniculus (Latin for a rabbit), via the Old French word conin, gave us the English word coney. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rabbit originally referred only to a young rabbit: the adults were called coneys. The word coney gradually declined in general use (it’s now used in British English to refer to rabbit fur), and rabbit became the standard term for the adult animal. Nowadays, the usual term for a young rabbit is a kitten.
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