Rabbits and the Specious Origins of Domestication

Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 33, Issue 3, pp. 149-152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2017.12.009

In this paper, based on my MSc research, we show that the widely accepted historical narrative of the domestication of rabbits is wrong, and that neither historical, archaeological nor genetic approaches to dating domestication can adequately resolve the temporal origins of rabbits. We argue that the willingness of scholars across broad disciplinary boundaries to accept this erroneous story reveals how frequently the domestication process is misconstrued as a discrete event. As domestication is a process that occurs along a continuum, attempts to date domestication should instead focus on questions related to the timing of changes in the way humans interacted with domesticates, and the resulting genetic and morphological effects on the species in question.

For more information, read the full article or check out some of the selected media coverage below. This paper is in the top 5% of all research outputs scored by Altmetric.

 
 
The Atlantic (PETER CZIBORRA / REUTERS)

The Atlantic (PETER CZIBORRA / REUTERS)

People Have Believed a Lie About Rabbit Domestication for Decades

Scientists don’t know when bunnies became docile—and they're not even sure if that's an answerable question.

The Atlantic, Ed Yong, 14 Feb 2018

It is often said, in both popular articles and scientific papers, that rabbits were first domesticated by French monks in 600 AD.

Back then, Pope Gregory the Great had allegedly decreed that laurices—newborn or fetal rabbits—didn’t count as meat. Christians could therefore eat them during Lent. They became a popular delicacy, and hungry monks started breeding them. Their work transformed the wild, skittish European rabbit into a tame domestic animal that tolerates humans.

 
The New York Times (APCOR/DKV)

The New York Times (APCOR/DKV)

Debunked: The Strange Tale of Pope Gregory and the Rabbits

A new report debunked the long-held scientific tale that rabbits were domesticated in 600 A.D. because a pope declared their fetal meat to be like fish and therefore O.K. to eat during Lent.

The New York Times, James Gorman, 13 Feb 2018

The details of how most animals became domesticated lie deep in the murky past, much debated and glimpsed only in tantalizing hints from fossils and DNA.

Except for rabbits.

Their story was clear, and it was a strange and compelling tale. Around 600 A.D., Pope Gregory the Great decreed that fetal rabbits, or laurices, were not meat, and could be eaten during Lent, when meat was not allowed. Monks in France — where else? — quickly saw an opportunity and began to keep and breed rabbits as a meaty non-meat to nourish them through a cold and fishy Lent.

 
The Washington Post (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Washington Post (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Legend held that monks domesticated rabbits for food. The truth is more complex

The story of how rabbits supposedly became domesticated animals is a strange one.

The Washington Post, Ben Guarino, 14 Feb 2018

The story of how rabbits supposedly became domesticated animals is a strange one. Around the year 600, the tale goes, Pope Gregory the Great issued a papal edict declaring that fetal rabbits were not meat. Because fluid-filled amniotic sacs surrounded rabbit fetuses, they counted as fish. Eaten this way the rabbits were a delicacy — a snack called laurices (always plural because, like potato chips, you wouldn't eat just one). French Catholic monks, who abstained from meat while observing Lent, pounced on the opportunity. Monks began to breed the animals like, well, rabbits. Skittish wild animals went into the monastery. After a few generations, out came tame and fluffy pets.