Why are there no lagomorphs in Patagonia?

by Matthew Cobb

Look at this map from Wikipedia. It shows the distribution of lagomorphs, which are rabbits and hares (family Leporidae) and pikas (family Ochotonidae). [Etymological titbit #1: The name comes from the greek for hare, lagos, so means hare-shaped.] Pikas are small mammals that tend to live in cold parts of north America and Eurasia.

What does the distribution tell us? In other words, why are the blue bits blue and why are the grey bits grey?

File:Lagomorpha range.png

First of all, this distribution is not entirely natural. Not all the lagomorphs noted here are indigenous. That is, there are lots of bits of blue that are down to human activity: moving rabbits and hares around the world for food and fur. The most notorious examples of this are Australia and New Zealand, where rabbits (and to a lesser extent hares) are now pests.  The distribution in Australia is intriguing – I imagine it means that either they’ve been eradicated from the northern areas or they never got there.

The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, originated on the Iberian peninsula, and has since spread across the world as we took it to breed for food and fur. [Etymological titbit #2, slightly NSFW: from the latin cuniculus we get the old English term coney (hence Coney Island, I guess) and, more scurrilously, some common slang words referring to female genitalia, such as con in French and the c-word in English.]

Second, the absence of lagomorphs from some major islands (Madagascar, Cuba, Borneo), but their presence on others (Ireland, Iceland, Sumatra) is intriguing. Greg Mayer, who helped me avoid some egregious misteaks in writing this post, highlighted some points in a mail:

Borneo (and Java) are both on the continental shelf, so the absence of lagomorphs there is a puzzle, unlike Cuba and Madagascar, which are old continental (Madagascar) or perhaps oceanic (maybe Cuba) islands, so they would have to disperse cross water to get to them naturally. The rabbits of Sumatra (also on the continental shelf) are native, not introduced (which is why Borneo and Java are a puzzle– all three were connected to the mainland and to one another recently. It looks like lagomorphs are not good at crossing water, as most or all of the islands they are on continental. (Iceland is interesting. It’s not out of the question that Arctic hares could have gotten there on sea ice, but I’m pretty sure that Arctic fox are the only native mammal there. The rabbits/hares would then have to be introduced.)

What really got me interested in this, however, was a tw**t by @NashTurley, asking why there are no lagomorphs in Patagonia – indeed, according to this map there would appear to be none in Argentina or the southern part of Chile. So: a) is it true? and b) if so, why? The European hare does appear to have been introduced into Chile and indeed, is infected with a form of tuberculosis bacterium. (I’m not sure if those little blue blobs at the top left of the Chile part of the map refer to the hares, or if they are more widely distributed.). While the Chile map may not be quite right, it does appear to be the case that there are no lagomorphs in Patagonia. NB: the Patagonian rabbit has nothing to do with Patagonia, it’s simply the name of a breed of very large domestic rabbit. So why the absence of lagomorphs?

Attempts have been made to introduce rabbits into Argentina, but they have basically failed. Indigenous species such as the Tapeti (Sylvilagus brasiliensis), a rabbit, are found in Mexico, through Brazil, extending down to northern Argentina, but they don’t make it further south. These animals crossed the Panamanian land bridge around 3 million years ago. Here’s a fine picture of an alert Tapeti, by Jorge La Grotteria, from here.

The Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum) might represent some kind of competitor. This is actually a rodent related to the guinea pig, but which looks remarkably lagomorphic. Photo from Wikipedia:

File:Dolichotis patagonum -Temaiken Zoo-8b-1c.jpg

Darwin was struck by these beasts, and called them ‘Patagonian hares’ because they are about the same size, and seem to occupy the same niche.

Is this, then, the answer? Are rabbits outcompeted by mara? But how would this explain the apparent lack of lagomorphs on the other side of the Andes, in southern Chile? Is it just too cold? Myxomatosis – a nasty lethal viral disease deliberately introduced into Australia and France in an attempt to control the domestic rabbit (it doesn’t affect hares), with unintended consequences for some predators which lost their prey species – originates from the southern cone, and may be involved, too.

Biogeography – the distribution of species around the planet – can often give us insights into both the present and past ecology of species, and their evolution. In this case, however, it provides us with a conundrum. Why are there no lagomorphs in Patagonia?

Thanks to Nash Turley and Greg Mayer.


  1. Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    I was considering the distribution of hares yesterday lunchtime (as you do!) – the native lagomorph of the British Isles is the arctic hare, lepus timidus. The European hare is shown on the Wikipedia map as covering the whole of Patagonia

    • Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      I am a little suspicious of the complete coverage in Arabia & the Sahara – the Cape hare, Lepus capensis, is not uniformly distributed in Africa. What other African lagomorphs are there?

  2. gerdien
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Coney Island: from Dutch ‘konijn’ (about ‘coneen’)?

    • IdoP
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      Indeed, Gerdien (de Jong I presume), in old Dutch the island was called: Conyne Eylandt (rabbit island).

      • lanceleuven
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        “Conyne Eylandt (rabbit island)”

        Hmm…Conyne? Remarkably similar to the surname of our host. Could the surname Coyne have possibly been derived from the Dutch for Rabbit? And, if so, should we perhaps address Jerry as Professor Rabbit? 🙂

        • IdoP
          Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink

          Interesting theory! I wonder if the professor has rabbit leather boots yet. Perhaps an idea for a present.

          • gbjames
            Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

            Perhaps as a lining for winter use!

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:08 am | Permalink

            I wonder if the professor has rabbit leather boots yet.

            When I tried tanning the pet rabbits (after killing and separating into “food”, “skin” and “waste”), I found that their skin was very thin and easy to tear. I didn’t pursue the project. It is possible to do, but I think it’s not a good choice for a “my first tannery” project.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 12, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

              I’m not sure those rabbits qualified as “pets”.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 12, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

                Or they had to worst owners ever!

      • gerdien de jong
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Ha, hallo Ido Pen!

  3. Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    The viscacha lives in Argentina and certinly looks rabbit like. Maybe it outcompetes lagomorphs.

  4. Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    If there are indeed no lagomorphs in Patagonia, I would lean toward a microbial disease barrier. Hard for me to see how competition between small mammals would keep them at zero.
    The region of absence in Australia and surrounding areas is a similar puzzle. The Australian pattern does not coincide with the rabbit-proof fences that were put up there. I guess those have failed.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      If where there are cavies there are no bunnies there must be something cavies have that bunnies don’t or something cavies carry that harm bunnies. I know that guinea pigs carry Bordetella bronchiseptica which kills rabbits. Perhaps this gives us a clue.

  5. Simon Hayward
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    “egregious misteaks”? 🙂

    • Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      It’s a joak. Not a funny one, I admit, but a joke nonetheless.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        I got a chuckle out of it.

        • Simon Hayward
          Posted January 9, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          So did I – hence the emoticon

  6. coozoe
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    Reads like a Rube Goldberg rabbit dispersion made by humans

  7. Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Fascinating post, thank you.

  8. Ernesto Giusti
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    That map seems wrong to me. My grandparents had a farm in Argentina, and hares and rabbits were common – and hunted. Note that the map above covers all Argentina, not only Patagonia. In Patagonia (Tierra del Fuego province), there are now very few hares, because they were exterminated in 1954-55 using a virus called mixomatosis, with up to 99% mortality. See, however, this map, with a different information: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lepus_europaeus_range_Map.png
    (please excuse my english).

    • Moarscienceplz
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Hi Ernesto,
      I am not an English major, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with your English in this post.

    • Posted January 10, 2014 at 2:14 am | Permalink

      I put that up in comment 1…!

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Hare’s are immune to the myxomatosis virus, but can carry the fleas that spread it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myxomatosis

      • teacupoftheapocalypse
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        “Hare’s”? Oh good grief. 🙂

  9. hazur
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    I grew up in the province of Buenos Aires, the eastern part of Argentina’s grey area in the map above, and there were plenty of ‘liebres’ (a leporidae) in the 70’s. I think that hunting (for the fur) and later intensive agriculture eliminated them, but I would expect that some could still be found. Not sure how far south and west they could be found.

    • Posted January 9, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      We lived in the province of Valdivia, Chile (4 years ago) and had lots of hares. Quite a few of our neighbour farmers used to hunt them.
      I made a fence around our veggy garden of 75 cm. high but they just jumped over it.

      Some interesting fieldwork needs to be done…

  10. Ernesto Giusti
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    You can see Tierra del Fuego (in the extreme south), where there are no hares, here, and how tiny it is in comparison with the rest of Argentina. It´s surely different from the map in the post.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:14 am | Permalink

      Tierra del Fuego : cold and a “wet cold” too – which are pretty difficult conditions for rabbits. Once the fur gets wet through, then their heat loss increases severely. “Dry cold” on the other hand they’re much better equipped for.
      I don’t know what the skin chemistry of rabbits is, but they seem to lack the heavy oiliness of sheep and their lanolin – so when the rain is near freezing and horizontally directed, the sheep just carry on chewing the landscape like the white plague they are, and the rabbits go and hide underground.

  11. Jim Thomerson
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I like mistakes in textbooks. They justify having a professor teach the class, rather than just having the students take turns reading the textbook aloud. We used a general education biology book which stated there are no rabbits in South America. I used a map out of one of the mammals of the world books to show that this statement was not correct. I also explained what the text was trying to say.

    It also said Dimetrodon is a dinosaur.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      A long time ago I took a statistics that used a newly published book. It was riddled with errors especially in examples and the review problems/solutions at the end of each chapter. Ironically, this lead to a much better understanding of statistical methods since we all had to figure out what the reasons were behind our own solutions not matching the examples. I suspect students using updated editions in later years tended not to do as well in the long run.

  12. W.Benson
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    As Ernesto Giusti and hazur point out, the basic premise of the post is false: lagomorphs occur all across Argentina and Chile. Never Bonino et al. (2010, Folia Zool., 59(1):1-15—pdf online) document the European hare occupying all of southern South America, with the exception of Tierra del Fuego. The hare has no problem coexisting with maras. It continues to advance to the north from the point of introduction and now occurs in eastern Brazil not far from Rio de Janeiro. The tapeti (essentially a tropical cotton-tail) evolved in tropical forest over millions (?) of years, and may have not had time to adapt to seasonally cold, dry conditions and eat the tough plants of central and southern Argentina.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    titbit #2 … the c-word

    Alternative #1: Remedial biology.

    Alternative #2: “Your spell checker has been hit with an egregious misteaks curse, and will be of no further use in this round.”

    I vote for #2.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted January 9, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Notice too that it’s now pronounced coney with a long o when it’s spelled the same as money and honey. Also slang for rabbit is bunny. Then recall the Monty Python fellow who couldn’t pronounce the letter c. Silly bunt.
      Seems like someone has bowdlerized the language here.

  14. Vicki
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Tangentially, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority website has translation software, which means you can get things like scheduled maintenance announcements auto-translated into a couple of dozen languages.

    Since it’s done by a machine, there’s no sanity checking: along with “Friday evening through Monday morning,” it translates a lot of the station names. 42nd Street/Times Square will still get it’s “42,” but I was startled, when I looked at the French, to find “Ile des Lapins” as the terminus of the D train. (I do like that the icon for French is a Canadian flag.)

  15. JBlilie
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure someone has already said it with an Aussie accent: “rabbit-proof fence”

  16. squidmasteer
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    My comments are only about naughty etymology and not (entirely) safe for work. ‘Cuniculus’ certainly meant ‘rabbit’ in Latin, although the word was probably *not* a dimunutive of ‘cunnus’, the root word of con, cono (how to put a tilde on the ‘n’?) and conno in French, Spanish and Italian. ‘Cunnus’, although it has the same meaning as our ‘see you next Tuesday’ is not cognate with it.

    Cuniculi were famously associated with the Iberian peninsula (Catullus famously refers to Egnatius as being from cuniculosa Celtiberia, roughly translated as Celtiberian bunny land), but the word is thought to have a Celtic origin and was romanized to it’s Latin form.

    Interestingly enough, the dirtiest word in classical Latin was ‘landica’, which meant ‘clitoris’. This probably says something about Roman attitudes toward gender.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 10, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      The ancient world had quite a taboo & infatuation with the lady parts. Greeks typically didn’t sculpt the female groin area (no indentation even) and on the occasion that someone did, it was said men got a little too excited over the statues.

  17. Henry Fitzgerald
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    I have no idea why rabbits aren’t in those bits of Australia – but they wouldn’t have been introduced there. Almost nobody lives there (well, apart from in Darwn – where according to parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au it isn’t actually illegal to have a pet rabbit), and there’s no agriculture.

    These would be regions that for one reason or another rabbits had difficulty ever reaching. The spread of rabbits was from the south to the north, and Parks and Wildlife have active programs to keep them spreading further.

  18. Jim Thomerson
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    One time the guys from the natural history museum in Maracaibo came through on the way to collect specimens in the llanos. When they came back through they gave me the bodies of three nice rabbits to cook for supper. I made rabbit and dumplings for them. Probably the first time ever in Venezuela. They were most pleased.

  19. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    One more datum on the “are there rabbits in Patagonia” question. The map given implies that they’re absent from most, if not all, of Argentina. The last time I found anywhere selling bunny (Lidl, “the German Delicatessan supermarket”, according to a friend), it was frozen and labelled as “produce of Argentina”. and it had been a big bunny. And they looked to have tenderised it with a stick prior to freezing, because there were lots of broken bones to stab into your gums.
    Why a previously rabbit-keen nation like Britain (look at the family name “Warren”, for example, dating from bunny’s introduction with the invaders of William The Bastard) just doesn’t eat bunny any more … is beyond me. I guess it’s a generation of revulsion at the sight of “myxy” rabbits stumbling around on the roads looking like something from a horror movie.

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