How To Tell The Difference Between Hares And Rabbits

Bouncing through a field, those furry animals with long ears look awfully similar – but are they rabbits or hares? While it may seem nearly impossible to tell the difference, learning the unique traits of each species unlocks a world of understanding. From their striking differences in size and markings, to contrasting social lives by day and night, rabbits and hares have evolved distinct survival strategies over millions of years. Join us on a hopping adventure to uncover the hidden keys to identifying not only full-grown animals, but also their young, and even discover what would happen if the two tried to mate! This illuminating guide will make you a rabbit and hare expert in no time.

Are Rabbits And Hares The Same Animal?

Rabbits and hares are often confused as being the same animal, but they are actually quite different. While they share some similarities in appearance, their behaviors, physiology, and evolutionary histories are distinct.

Both rabbits and hares are small, furry mammals with long ears and powerful hind legs adapted for jumping and sprinting. However, there are several key differences that allow them to be distinguished.

The most noticeable difference is size – hares are generally much larger in size compared to rabbits. For example, the European hare can reach up to 60 cm in length and weigh over 4 kg, while a common domestic rabbit may only reach 40 cm in length and weigh less than 2 kg.

Hares also have longer ears and legs relative to their body size. Rabbits have smaller, rounded bodies, while hares have leaner, elongated bodies. Hares' fur coats tend to be brownish or grayish, while rabbits display a wider variety of coat colors including white, brown, black, and mottled patterns.

While rabbits live underground in burrows, hares live in simple nests above ground called forms. Hares are also less social than rabbits, with adults coming together only to mate. Rabbits live together in social groups sharing underground burrow systems.

In terms of reproduction, hares have a shorter gestation period of around 42 days compared to a rabbit's gestation of 28-35 days. Hares are precocial at birth, meaning they are born with fur and open eyes and are able to move around shortly after birth. Rabbits are altricial, meaning they are born hairless, blind, and entirely dependent on their mothers.

Genetically, hares and rabbits are distinct species that diverged over 12 million years ago as the leporid family evolved and adapted to fill different ecological niches. While they share common ancestry, they are no longer able to interbreed successfully.

So in summary, while hares and rabbits share superficial similarities, they are distinct species with differences in their size, physiology, behavior, breeding, and genetics. Paying attention to key characteristics like size, fur color, ear length, sociality, offspring, and habitat can help identify whether a leporid you spot is a hare or a rabbit!

What Are The Differences Between Rabbits and Hares?

There are several key differences that distinguish hares from rabbits:

  • Size – Hares are generally much larger in body size compared to rabbits.

  • Ears – Hares have longer ears proportional to their body size compared to rabbits.

  • Hind legs – Hares have longer, more powerful hind legs compared to rabbits.

  • Tail – Most rabbits have a small, powder puff tail, while hares just have a small nub of a tail.

  • Fur – Hares have coarser fur that is mostly brownish/grayish, while rabbits have finer, softer fur in a variety of colors.

  • Body shape – Rabbits are smaller and rounder, while hares have leaner, elongated bodies.

  • Habitat – Rabbits live in underground burrows, while hares live in simple nests above ground.

  • Social structure – Rabbits live in social groups in shared burrow systems, while hares are solitary.

  • Reproduction – Hares have a shorter gestation period (42 days) compared to rabbits (28-35 days). Hares are precocial at birth while rabbits are altricial.

  • Diet – Rabbits are herbivores who eat grasses, leafy weeds, vegetables, and hay. Hares have a more varied diet including twigs, buds, bark, and crops.

  • Activity – Rabbits are crepuscular, most active at dawn and dusk. Hares are nocturnal or diurnal.

  • Temperament – Hares are shyer and more skittish compared to rabbits. Rabbits are calmer when handled.

  • Evolutionary history – Rabbits and hares diverged over 12 million years ago and are distinct species that can't interbreed.

So in summary, hares and rabbits differ significantly in their physical characteristics, behaviors, habitats, breeding patterns, diets, and evolutionary descent, allowing us to distinguish between the two types of leporids.

Hares are More Skittish Than Rabbits

One of the more noticeable behavioral differences between hares and rabbits is that hares tend to be much more skittish, jittery, and excitable in temperament compared to rabbits. There are several reasons for this difference:

  • As prey animals vulnerable to predators like foxes, coyotes, hawks, and owls, hares rely on speed and wariness to evade threats in their open habitats. This has selected for more nervous, high-strung traits compared to the calmer rabbit.

  • Rabbits live underground in burrows and tunnels, which provide safety and security. Hares rest in exposed shallow depressions on the ground, making them more alert to any potential danger.

  • Hares are solitary, coming together only briefly to mate. Rabbits live in social groups which provides a level of safety in numbers. The solitary hare doesn't have this security.

  • High metabolism – hares have a very high metabolic rate which may contribute to their excitable temperament.

  • Hormones – hares have higher levels of stress hormones that prime them for rapid flight response to stimuli.

  • Hares are preyed on while still young, so early traumatic experiences likely reinforce their skittishness compared to rabbits protected in burrows.

  • Myths of hares "boxing" are due to defensive kicks triggered by fear rather than true sparring. No such behavior exists in rabbits.

As a result, hares will flee at the slightest disturbance, while rabbits will freeze and rely on camouflage to avoid threats. Hares are stressed by handling, while domestic rabbits can be quite docile. So if the leporid you spot quickly runs away when approached, it's likely a hare!

Hares are Nocturnal While Rabbits are Crepuscular

Rabbits and hares have differing activity patterns – rabbits are crepuscular, meaning most active at dawn and dusk, while hares are generally nocturnal or diurnal. These activity patterns suit their lifestyles and degree of vulnerability to predators.

Rabbits emerge in the dim light of dawn and dusk to feed and mate while avoiding daytime predators like hawks and owls that hunt by sight. Under the cover of darkness, they return to their underground burrows and tunnel networks where they are safer from detection.

In contrast, hares are active at night when their open habitat provides more concealment under darkness. Their superior hearing, longer limbs, and ability to reach high speeds help them evade nocturnal predators like foxes and coyotes. Some species like the European hare are active during daytime hours. Hares rely on flight over hiding when threatened.

Other factors influence activity patterns:

  • Climate: In cooler regions, hares may be more diurnal to capitalize on warmer daylight temperatures.

  • Seasons: During summer, rabbits are more nocturnal to avoid overheating, while hares are more diurnal.

  • Food availability: Rabbits and hares have to balance demands for food and safety.

  • Reproductive cycle: Most mating occurs at night for concealment and protection.

So a key distinction is that rabbits retreat to burrows in the brightest times of day, while hares like to feed under cover of night or day depending on conditions. Observing when a leporid is active can thus help clue you in to whether it is a hare or rabbit!

Hares Have a Different Reproductive Cycle to Rabbits

Rabbits and hares have quite different reproductive biology and breeding patterns:

  • Rabbits are induced ovulators – ovulation occurs only after mating, while hares are spontaneous ovulators like most mammals.

  • Rabbits have a shorter gestation period lasting 28-35 days. Hares have a longer gestation of about 42 days.

  • Rabbits produce altricial young – born hairless, blind, and helpless. Hares produce precocial young able to see and move minutes after birth.

  • Rabbits have up to 5-6 litters per year. Hares have just 1-3 litters per year, with their breeding season triggered by light cycles.

  • Female rabbits prepare special fur-lined nests for their young. Hares do not build specific nests, simply circling an indentation on the ground.

  • Baby rabbits nurse for 2-3 weeks, needing the safety of a burrow. Leverets, as baby hares are called, nurse for just 4-5 days before leaving the nest.

  • Female rabbits demonstrate better parenting skills, with both parents caring for the litter. Hares provide little maternal care after weaning.

  • Rabbits reach sexual maturity earlier, by 4-5 months old. Hares take 9-12 months to reach reproductive age.

So in summary, rabbits employ a "quantity over quality" strategy by producing multiple large litters per year, while hares follow a "quality over quantity" approach with just a few precocial young per season. These differing reproductive strategies are adaptations to their contrasting lifestyles and lifespans.

Could a Rabbit Mate with a Hare?

While rabbits and hares may appear quite similar and both belong to the taxonomic order Lagomorpha, they are distinct species that diverged evolutionarily over 12 million years ago. This means that under normal circumstances, rabbits cannot successfully mate with hares to produce viable or fertile offspring.

There are several barriers to reproducing across hare and rabbit species:

  • Genetic incompatibility – The DNA of hares and rabbits has diverged over millions of years so that it is no longer compatible for breeding.

  • Differences in chromosomes – Rabbits and hares have different chromosomal numbers (rabbits have 22 chromosomes while hares have 48), causing issues with meiosis if mating occurs.

  • Separate gene pools – Geographic, reproductive, and behavioral isolation maintains distinct gene pools.

  • Anatomical mismatches – Differences in the size, shapes of reproductive organs may prevent mating.

  • Mating behaviors – Courtship rituals like scent marking are species-specific and may inhibit cross-species breeding.

  • No hybrid habitat – Hybrids are poorly adapted to either rabbits’ or hares’ natural habitat.

  • Offspring infertility – Any hybrid offspring would likely be infertile and unable to breed, stopping gene flow across species.

While hybridization may very rarely occur under unusual conditions like captivity, the biological separation between hares and rabbits is so complete after millions of years of evolution that interbreeding does not occur under natural conditions. So don't expect to find any "habbits" in the wild!

Breeds of Rabbit And Hare in North America

There are several species and breeds of wild rabbits and hares found across North America:


  • Eastern cottontail – small, brown or gray rabbit with a fluffy white tail, found everywhere from Canada to South America. Common in neighborhoods.

  • New England cottontail – similar to the eastern cottontail but found only in the northeastern US, and has a black rather than white forehead patch.

  • European rabbit – introduced to North America and now found established in parts of Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island. An invasive species.

  • Appalachian cottontail – Rare forest rabbit found only at high elevations in the Appalachian mountains.

  • Pygmy rabbit – Tiny rabbit species found in the US states of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. One of North America's smallest rabbits.

  • Swamp rabbit – Larger cottontail species found in swamps and wetlands of the southern US and northeastern Mexico.


  • Snowshoe hare – Named for its huge hind feet, it has white fur in winter and brown fur in summer. Found across northern North America.

  • White-tailed jackrabbit – Very large hare of central and western North America with pale sides and white tail. Can reach speeds of 45 mph.

  • Black-tailed jackrabbit – Similar to the white-tailed jackrabbit but with a black rather than white tail and found in western US and Mexico.

So in summary, a variety of rabbit and hare species have adapted to habitats across North America, from deserts to mountain forests to swampland. They can be distinguished from each other by characteristics like size, fur color, tail color, ears, and native ranges.

Encountering Rabbits and Hares in the Wild

When you spot a furry, long-eared animal hopping or running through a field, how can you know if it is a rabbit or a hare? Here are some tips for identifying wild leporids:

  • Size – If it is very large, over 50cm long, it is likely a hare. Smaller, under 40cm, is more indicative of a rabbit.

  • Tail – A small, round tail signals a rabbit. A tiny nub of a tail means it's a hare.

  • Ears – Long ears in proportion to body size suggest a hare. Shorter ears indicate a rabbit.

  • Fur – Patchy, mottled fur is more common with rabbits. Solid brownish-gray fur is more characteristic of hares.

  • Time of day – If seen at dawn or dusk, it's likely a rabbit. If seen at night or mid-day, it's likely a hare.

  • Habitat – Seeing the animal near burrows suggests a rabbit. In open country away from bushes and trees is more hare-like.

  • Behavior – Freezing in place indicates a rabbit. Darting away rapidly signals a hare.

  • Season – Winter white coats are characteristic of hares and some rabbits. Summer brown coats make species identification more difficult.

So in summary, considering factors like size, ears, tail, fur, habitat, activity patterns, and behavior along with subtle distinguishing features can help alert observers determine whether that fuzzy critter bounding by is a rabbit or a hare when encountered in the wild.

Should I Handle a Wild Rabbit or Hare?

It is generally advised against handling wild rabbits or hares, for both your safety and health of the animals. Wild rabbits and hares can scratch, bite, and transmit diseases, and handling them causes immense stress to the animals. Here are some specific reasons to avoid contact:

  • Bites and scratches: Rabbits have sharp teeth and claws for defense and can bite or scratch if distressed. Hares rely on powerful hind legs that can also inflict damaging kicks.

  • Diseases: Wild leporids can transmit diseases to humans including tularemia and ringworm. Always wash hands after contact.

  • Parasites: Fleas, mites, and ticks can easily transfer from leporids to humans with handling.

  • Stress: Being captured and handled can raise heart rate, body temperature, and stress hormones to dangerous levels in rabbits and hares.

  • Abandonment: Nursing female rabbits and hares may abandon their young after human disturbance at the nest. Young left alone often perish.

  • Disruption: Handling disrupts natural behaviors and may separate social pairs and families.

  • Survival skills: Habituation to humans through handling undermines natural wariness and survival instincts of wild leporids.

  • Misidentification: It can be difficult to distinguish between species, some of which require permits for capture.

In summary, it is best to appreciate wild rabbits and hares at a distance and minimize disturbance to them. If you must handle an injured rabbit or abandoned young, be sure to take proper sanitary precautions. Enjoy observing these remarkable animals behaving naturally without unneeded interference.


In conclusion, while rabbits and hares appear superficially similar they are in fact quite different species. Hares are larger with longer legs and ears, have coarse brownish fur, live solitarily in simple above-ground forms, are active at night or daytime, have a shorter gestation and give birth to precocial young. Rabbits are smaller with shorter ears, have soft fur in a variety of colors, live socially underground in burrow systems, are crepuscular, have a longer gestation and give birth to altricial young. Being able to distinguish hares from rabbits requires noticing key differences in size, fur, ears, tails, habitat, activity patterns, sociality, mating habits and reproductive biology. With some careful observation and knowledge it is possible to confidently tell apart the two types of leporids when you encounter them hopping across a field or garden!

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