Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas

The Animal Encyclopedia

hare on brown ground

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Hares, pikas, and rabbits (Lagomorpha) are small terrestrial mammals that include cottontails, jackrabbits, pikas, hares, and rabbits. The group is also commonly referred to as lagomorphs. There are about 80 species of lagomorphs divided into two subgroups, the pikas and the hares and rabbits.

Lagomorphs are not as diverse as many other mammal groups, but they are widespread. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica and are absent from only a few places around the globe such as parts of South America, Greenland, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Although not native to Australia, lagomorphs have been introduced there by humans and have since successfully colonized many parts of the continent.

Lagomorphs generally have a short tail, large ears, wide-set eyes and narrow, slit-like nostrils that they can scrunch tightly closed. The two subgroups of lagomorphs differ considerably in their general appearance. Hares and rabbits are larger and have long hind legs, a short bushy tail, and long ears. Pikas, on the other hand, in contrast, are smaller than hares and rabbits and more rotund. They have round bodies, short legs, and a tiny, barely-visible tail. Their ears are prominent but are rounded and not as conspicuous as those of hares and rabbits.

Lagomorphs often form the foundation of many predator-prey relationships in the ecosystems they inhabit. As important prey animals, lagomorphs are hunted by animals such as carnivores, owls, and birds of prey. Many of their physical characteristics and specializations have evolved as a means of helping them escape predation. For example, their large ears enable them to hear approaching danger better; the position of their eyes enables them to have a near 360-degree range of vision; their long legs enable them to run quickly and out-maneuver predators.

Lagomorphs are herbivores. They feed on grass, fruits, seeds, bark, roots, herbs, and other plant material. Since the plants they eat are difficult to digest, they expel a wet fecal matter and eat it to ensure that the material passes through their digestive system twice. This enables them to extract as much nutrition as possible from their food.

Lagomorphs inhabit most terrestrial habitats including semi-deserts, grasslands, woodlands, tropical forests, and arctic tundra. Their distribution is worldwide with the exception of Antarctica, southern South America, most islands, Australia, Madagascar, and the West Indies. Lagomorphs have been introduced by humans to many ranges in which they were not formerly found and often such introductions have led to widespread colonization.


The earliest representative of the lagomorphs is thought to be Hsiuannania, a ground-dwelling herbivore that lived during the Paleocene in China. Hsiuannania is known from just a few fragments of teeth and jawbones. Despite the scant fossil record for early lagomorphs, what evidence there is indicates that the lagomorph clade originated somewhere in Asia.

The earliest ancestor of rabbits and hares lived 55 million years ago in Mongolia. Pikas emerged about 50 million years ago during the Eocene. Pika evolution is difficult to resolve, as only seven species of pikas are represented in the fossil record.


The classification of lagomorphs is highly controversial. At one time, lagomorphs were considered to be rodents due to striking physical similarities between the two groups. But more recent molecular evidence has supported the notion that lagomorphs are no more related to rodents than they are to other mammal groups. For this reason, they are now ranked as an entirely separate group of mammals.

Lagomorphs are classified within the following taxonomic hierarchy:

Animals > Chordates > Vertebrates > Tetrapods > Amniotes > Mammals > Lagomorphs

Lagomorphs are divided into the following taxonomic groups:

  • Pikas (Ochotonidae) - There are about 30 species of pikas alive today. Members of this group include silver pikas, collard pikas, steppe pikas, Chinese red pikas, Himalayan pikas, and many other species. Pikas are notable for their short, rounded ears, lack of a tail, and round body.
  • Hares and rabbits (Leporidae) - There are about 50 species of hares and rabbits alive today. Members of this group include eastern cottontails, robust cottontails, European rabbits, antelope jackrabbits, snowshoe hares, Arctic hares, volcano rabbits, desert hares, Abyssinian hares, and many others.
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Klappenbach, Laura. "Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/hares-rabbits-and-pikas-130307. Klappenbach, Laura. (2020, August 25). Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hares-rabbits-and-pikas-130307 Klappenbach, Laura. "Hares, Rabbits, and Pikas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hares-rabbits-and-pikas-130307 (accessed March 28, 2023).