What do Rabbits teach us?

Written by A/Prof Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore

Cheongsam RabbitAs we usher in the Year of the Rabbit, and this being my first blog article, my ‘teacher-at-heart’ nature makes me ask this question: “what can we learn from the rabbits?”

I think one lesson we learn from them is not to judge by appearance. Many make the mistake thinking that rabbits are rodents because they share some common features. Rabbits are actually Lagomorphs, with 6 incisor (front) teeth whereas rodents like Guinea pigs and mice have only 4. So if a rodent is pretending to be a rabbit just open its mouth and the true identity will be revealed.  🙂

Another lesson we learn from the rabbits is how productive their life can be! Rabbits’ breeding potential is extremely high for a mammal, and they can start reproducing from 3 to 4 months of age. A mature female rabbit can be pregnant from 6 to 8 months in a year, with each pregnancy lasting about 30 days. A female rabbit is endowed with 4 to 5 pairs of nipples, more than enough for each brood of 5 or 6 bunny babies. Within a year, a mother rabbit can give birth up to 30 to 40 offspring. If all female offspring start breeding when they reach sexual maturity in 3 months, imagine how many generations of bunnies can be overlapping within their lifespan. It can be a nightmare trying to piece together a rabbit extended family tree!

Interestingly, while rabbits have high productivity in terms of breeding, they also helped us increase human ‘productivity’!

Rabbits were instrumental in making surrogate pregnancy possible. The first case of mammalian embryo transfer experiments was actually conducted on rabbits. In 1890, Professor Walter Heape at the Cambridge University, England, successfully transferred rabbit embryos from one mother to another. Later in 1891, working with two species of rabbits, he demonstrated that that it was possible to take pre-implantation (i.e., not yet established with the placenta) embryos and transfer them to a gestational carrier without affecting their development. In his experiment, he flushed embryos from the rabbit fallopian tubes of one breed (Angora) and placed them into the uterus of a recently mated Belgian breed. When the Belgian mother gave birth, there were 4 Belgians and 2 Angoras.

You can imagine how such breakthrough in the 19th century laid the foundation for surrogate pregnancy in the 20th and 21st century and how this was important for the success of animal cloning applications in animal husbandry and even assisted reproduction in human. In recent times, many Hollywood celebrities (e.g., Ricky Martin, Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, etc) actually derived their babies by employing surrogate mothers. They really have to thank the rabbits for the ‘convenient’ method in setting up a family.  🙂

There are many more lessons the rabbits have taught us and there are many more new things we have yet to learn from them… Whenever you see a rabbit, think about it.  🙂

Wishing all readers a Joyous Year of the Rabbit!

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