Two views, using different lighting effects, of my taxiderm horned hare (Dr Karl Shuker)
It is well known that one of North America's most popular legendary icons, the jackalope, originated in traditional lumberjack folklore but was first given a physical reality as recently as the 1930s when the earliest confirmed taxiderm specimen was artfully manufactured from a jack rabbit (technically a species of hare) and some pronghorn antelope horns by Douglas Herrick from Wyomimg, who was subsequently dubbed the 'Father of the Jackalopes'. Less well known, however, is that Europe also has a longstanding tradition of such creatures, but here they are termed horned hares.
Selection of lagomorphs including horned hare (centre), portrayed in 1580 by Joris Hoefnagel in Plate 77 of Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia (Terra)
Today, I was delighted to receive as a very generous gift from friend and fellow crypto-enthusiast Carl Marshall a beautiful taxiderm specimen of a horned hare whose creation he had organised specially for me, courtesy of his taxidermist father – thanks Carl!
Close up of my horned hare's head, highlighting its antlers (Dr Karl Shuker)
So what better reason could I possibly require for presenting without further ado here on ShukerNature a potted (or even jugged!) history of the horned hare?
With my very own horned hare (Dr Karl Shuker)
Until as recently as the late 18th Century, the authors of many of the early pre-scientific animal encyclopedias, or bestiaries as they were called then, still believed in the existence of fabulous beasts that nowadays have long been dismissed as non-existent fauna of folklore and legend - such as unicorns, dragons, satyrs, and mermaids. Another of these now-discounted creatures, far less dramatic than those listed above, yet no less intriguing, and often depicted in bestiaries, was the horned hare.
Engraving depicting a badger, mole, horned hare, and fox, from Adriaen Collaert's tome Animalium Quadrupedum (1612)
Despite its name, however, illustrations of this remarkable animal usually portrayed it as being much more rabbit-like than hare-like, and its 'horns' were in fact antlers, branched at their tips, and frequently very similar in overall appearance to those of young roe deer Capreolus capreolus. This bizarre mini-beast was widely reported across Europe, but was said to be particularly abundant amid the forests of Bavaria in Germany.
Horned hares engraving, from Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium (1718)
Indeed, its reality was so readily accepted by naturalists at that time that it even received its own formal Latin name – Lepus cornutus ('horned hare'). A number of highly-prized stuffed specimens also existed, usually proudly displayed in hunting lodges or in private collections of unusual natural history exhibits known as cabinets of curiosities.
Horned hare engraving from the 16th Century
By the 19th Century, conversely, advances in zoological research and scientific knowledge had shown that the horned hare was not only a nonsense but a fraudulent one. Close examination of the taxiderm specimens revealed that they were hoaxes, created by the skilful manipulation of large stuffed rabbits or hares onto whose heads had been craftily grafted pairs of young, short deer antlers, or, more rarely, the trimmed, pointed horns of small African antelopes, particularly duikers.
Horned hare engraving, from Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre's Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique (1789)
Yet even though its subject's authenticity had been disproved, the cult of the horned hare remained very much alive, so much so that by the mid-1800s a new craze had begun in earnest – the deliberate creation of ever more fanciful and exotic-looking horned hares, sporting not only antlers but even feathered wings, plus huge fangs startlingly similar to those of the prehistoric sabre-tooth tigers! In Bavaria, such incredible composites were referred to as wolpertingers, and were often created specifically as tourist attractions, or as souvenirs to tempt and fool wealthy but gullible visitors. Even today, they appear on t-shirts and postcards, and privately-owned specimens occasionally come up for sale in specialist auctions, where they invariably sell for very appreciable sums. The German Hunting and Fishing Museum at Munich houses a permanent exhibition of wolpertingers.
Two wolpertingers (Markus Bühler)
Equally bizarre is the rabbit-bird. Uniting the furry head of a rabbit with the feathered body of a bird, this highly unlikely hybrid was nonetheless firmly believed to be genuine by none other than the celebrated Roman naturalist-scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), who even documented it in his massive treatise Naturalis Historia - in which he claimed that it inhabited the lofty mountain peaks of the Alps. Needless to say, no such beast did, or does, exist – until 1918, that is.
Pliny's rabbit-bird (© Greyherbert/Flickr)
For that was the year when Swedish taxidermist Rudolf Granberg created a stuffed hare with wings known as a skvader, deftly combining the head, foreparts, and limbs of a hare with the back, wings, and tail of a female capercaillie Tetrao urogallus – a very large species of grouse. Still exhibited today at the museum at Norra Berget in Sundsvall, eastern Sweden, it was inspired by an infamously far-fetched claim by hunter Håkan Dahlmark that he had shot just such a beast back in 1874 while hunting north of Sundsvall. Since then, other taxiderm skvaders have been created and, just like their Bavarian wolpertinger brethren, remain popular today.
The original taxiderm skvader at Norra Berget
Nor should we forget the astonishing al-mi'raj or unicorn hare. According to a number of medieval bestiaries, this enigmatic creature resembled a large yellow hare, but its brow bore a single unicorn-like horn, black in colour. Said to inhabit a mysterious Indian Ocean island, and often featuring in Islamic poetry, this deceptive beast behaved in so placid and tame a manner that many a curious onlookers would approach it for a closer look – whereupon the al-mi'raj would suddenly lower its head and charge directly at its unsuspecting observer, fatally impaling him with its horn, then devouring him entirely!
13th-Century illustration of the al-mi'raj or unicorn hare
Is it possible, however, that Eurasia's horned hares and North America's jackalopes are not entirely the product of folklore and fakery but actually have at least a little basis in fact? The first strong evidence that this might indeed be true came in 1937, with the publication of Volume 4 of Canadian writer-naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton's book Lives of Game Animals. In the section discussing cottontail rabbits, Seton included a page of self-drawn sketches of rabbits bearing a grotesque array of horn-like protrusions from their heads and faces. Some of these recalled the bestiary illustrations of horned hares and the folktale descriptions of jackalopes.
Horned SPV-infected cottontail rabbits (Ernest Thompson Seton, 1937)
But what had caused these freakish horns to develop? Studying cottontails inflicted in this manner, medical biologist Dr Richard E. Shope had discovered just a few years earlier that they had been infected by a specific virus (nowadays known as the Shope papilloma virus). This transforms facial follicle cells into hard tumours called papillomas, which in the most extreme cases give rise to these bizarre horns. One such specimen was found dead in a Minnesota woman's garden in September 2005 after she had called the police in alarm upon finding it there. In addition, there is a YouTube video of an even more recent living specimen.
Dr Shope also discovered a second virus that has similar effects, the Shope fibroma virus. Both are most common in North America. However, in Europe, hares are prone to a virus known as Leporipoxvirus, to which rabbits are also susceptible, and which again causes the production of horny facial nodules and growths.
The CFZ's North American jackalope (CFZ)
It is easy to see how, centuries ago in pre-scientific times, if someone encountered a rabbit or hare in Eurasia or North America suffering from one of these viruses and bearing various horn-like growths on its head or face, belief in the existence of a rare, exotic species of horned hare or jackalope could swiftly develop. And as microbiological knowledge was at best inaccurate and at worst non-existent in those bygone ages, even naturalists might readily have been fooled into assuming that such horns were natural structures rather than the physical effects of a viral infection. Coupling this with the all-too-frequently exaggerated and distorted illustrations of animals present in bestiaries back then, and suddenly a hare with horns, or even a rabbit with antlers, is no longer so surprising and implausible a creature after all.
Coloured engraving of lagomorphs, including a horned hare at bottom right (original source unknown)
This ShukerNature blog post is an adapted excerpt from my latest book, Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (Anomalist Books: New York, 2013).