This humble, often overlooked creature lives almost everywhere in the desert, such as along the dry lakes at the bottom of Death Valley and in the high mountains among the piñons and junipers. They do this through their ability to eat a wide range plants. The jackrabbit is an extreme machine built to live in extreme environments and is a success at doing this, as it exists in the millions. What the creosote Bush is in desert plant life the jackrabbit is in desert animal life. The primary function of the jackrabbit in the desert ecosystem is to take the food energy and water from the plants and concentrate them even further in its body. This becomes the food and water source for many of the desert predators. Like the Jackrabbit many desert predators such as snakes and Kit Foxes do not live anywhere near a spring or other liquid water source. Instead they rely on their food to maintain their body’s moisture content. The adult jackrabbit is a relatively large animal by desert standards and often too large for some predators. However, the smaller rabbits, that is, baby jackrabbits, often provide a large portion of the diet for these smaller predators such as snakes and the Kit Fox.
The jackrabbit has three unique features that set him apart from most other animals. The first and often most notable are the large ears for hearing. Then there are its long and powerful rear legs that make them faster than most animals. Often overlooked are his bulging eyes placed on the side of his head that give the jackrabbit a somewhat stupid, nervous look. As we will see the jackrabbit is not stupid, though it has good reason to be perpetually nervous.
The jackrabbits are no dumb bunnys. They understand and utilize shade and sometime spend the greater part of the day in some small little piece of shade. In the jackrabbit’s world shade is a strategic resource that can mean the difference between life and death. The Jackrabbit understands that these shady spots are essentially water, as they allow the rabbit to get out of the radiant energy of the sun and not dry out. The vast majority of Jackrabbits may see liquid water only when it rains, once or twice a year and sometimes even longer intervals. Then when it does rain there is liquid water for perhaps only a few minutes or an hour at the most. Indeed when one sees an area that has a lot of shady spots, whether it’s from plants like the desert willow or Smoketree, or from rocks it will make a difference in the population level of the jackrabbits in that area. When one is trying to understand the Jackrabbits place in the desert ecosystem one should take into consideration the visual and acoustic properties of these shady places and the suitability of the terrain for running at high speeds. Sometimes you can travel through the desert into an area that has a lot of jackrabbits and then a few months later go through the same area and find very few. This is because this population of jackrabbits has dried out. That is to say they have thirsted to death in mass. It is truly amazing how long it takes the jackrabbits to dry out and die. When the jackrabbit is in this dry condition its blood is more of a sticky slimy substance than a liquid. One can gauge this process by looking at the condition of plants in the area and the relative lethargic behavior of the jackrabbit. To truly be aware when one walks the desert, one must be aware of such things as this.
The small clearing in this picture is what’s known as a form. This is a place where a jackrabbit has cleared out a place to rest numerous times. To understand the ways of the jackrabbit you have to literally take on their point of view by getting down on your hands and knees and then bending over until your point of view is six inches or a foot off the ground to see and experience the world from their point of view. While attaining this perspective is important to understanding their worldview, it’s not the only way a jackrabbit experiences there world. A place like this form may be located for its visual attributes or for its acoustic attributes. When trying to understand the Jackrabbit you must consider the acoustic environment and all that it entails as well. This is something we cannot experience directly with our level of hearing, however we can contemplate it with our imagination. For instance the form in this picture has a good view that is useful in daylight, and the ground around it is fairly noisy to walk on thus making it a safe place at night. The jackrabbits mind is such that they can often tell by the sound of the footsteps what animal is making them, and its direction of travel. The Jackrabbit must survive night and day in the open desert. Thus they must rely on their sight during the day and their hearing at night. When the jackrabbit is lying in its form, night or day it understands that it has left a scent trail that leads right to itself, and also a scent plume wandering down wind. Their awareness of this is such that they know that a predator can pick up this scent, sometimes from hundreds of yards away. One can only imagine what it must be for the Jackrabbit to sit quietly on a dark moonless night in the desert where all the predators in the neighborhood are trying to sniff him out and devour him, and in this deep darkness of the desert night he cannot use his speed to evade them.
When walking or moving slow, the jackrabbit is a uniquely awkward animal, for it is built for speed and nothing else. Most quadrupeds like the Coyote and the Desert Bighorn Sheep have bigger stronger front legs and lighter weaker ones in back. The jackrabbit is just the opposite. It is built like the Kangaroo or the Kangaroo Rat. Few animals are built like this. When at speed the jackrabbit is a marvel to behold. Its hind legs provide so much thrust that it takes a lot of the weight off the front end it’s body. When running at full speed their hind legs are so long that their rear paws actually land in front of their front paws, as shown in this picture. When up to speed the Jackrabbit can use his front legs to change direction with incredible speed and agility. It’s speed and agility is often put to the test by its ultimate predator the Coyote. This life-and-death contest goes something like this. The Rabbits speed and agility is against the Coyotes speed and endurance. During the chase the Jackrabbit usually has a slight speed advantage which he will quickly lose to the Coyotes endurance. So during the chase the Jackrabbit changes direction with lightning speed such that the coyote cannot match. He hopes to either lose him among the bushes and other terrain features or go into some deep brush where the Coyote cannot follow. If this fails, every time the jackrabbit changes direction the Coyote usually overshoots and thus has to turn and run farther to catch up, and the Coyote also slows down a bit in this process. Often times just as the coyote is reaching out with his jaws or is breaking its stride to pounce on the jackrabbit, the jackrabbit will see this. Due to its bulging eyes that are placed on the side of its head, it can see what’s ahead of it and behind it fairly easily. In this split-second they will change directions to evade the Coyote once again. If the Jackrabbit wins it gets to continue in its life of fear, and run and hide for another day. If caught the Jackrabbit does not put up a fight. They will not try to scratch the eyes out of the Coyote or bite back, rather it accepts death peacefully and in a compliant manner. When the Coyote wins and times are good, the coyote will rip open the belly of the jackrabbit, often while the jackrabbit is still alive and devour the nutritious wet internal organs and leave the rest of the carcass to rot under the desert sun. This savagery has played out in the desert countless times, throughout the ages.
Often times the Jackrabbit is active at night. In the darkness its big ears really come into play. Acute hearing can often be viewed as an adaptation for nighttime activity. The Jackrabbit has the ability to move its ears and aim them in different directions without moving his body. This ability to maximize their acoustic awareness makes the Jackrabbits at home in the darkness of the desert. Only the Bat is better suited for nighttime activity but it cannot operate in the daytime like the Jackrabbit.
While the jackrabbit is active day and night there is a special time when jackrabbits are most active. That is right around sunset and sunrise. To understand this is to understand many things about the jackrabbit and the desert environment. The first thing we need to understand is that during this time there is a unique lighting situation. With little or no direct sunlight there is no glare, things do not shine as well. The Jackrabbits fur like all fur tends to absorb light and thereby take on the color of light being reflected from the earth. This tends to camouflage the jackrabbit very well yet there is still enough light that the Jackrabbit’s can use his high-speed ability to its maximum effect. The jackrabbit is a true master of understanding its presence and awareness in the desert environment. Sometimes you’ll see them sit up and sniff the air to sense if things are safe. Other times while in this upright position you will see them actually looking around using their visual awareness instead of their sense of smell. While in this posture it may have his ears up and listening intently or folded down along its back to minimize its visual presence in the environment. Many predators have a visual representation of the Jackrabbit in their mind. Normally this mental image entails its large ears. With its large ears folded down along it back the Jackrabbits know that a predator is far less likely to recognize them as a Jackrabbit. I have watched this played out once. I was walking with another person and I pointed out a Jackrabbit standing up with his ears folded back. The other person saw him but believed it was only a stick, not a Rabbit. As we got closer this stick turned into a jackrabbit and took off running.
Another reason the Jackrabbit’s activities are focused on sunset and sunrise is water. Most desert plants can extract water out of a relatively dry piece of earth and then concentrate it in their roots, stems, and leaves. However during the daytime the stems and leaves are battling the high temperatures and radiant energy of the sun and thus a higher evaporation rate. Desert plants have mechanisms to cope with this that allow the stems and leaves to remain alive in a low water condition. Many desert plants in adapting to the harsh desert environment only bloom during the night. Not only does this protect the delicate and moist blossoms from drying out in the sun, but this is a time when many desert insects are active for much the same reason. Their activities sometime cross pollinate these night blooming flowers. Of course the Jackrabbit not only needs the food that the plants provide, he also needs water that was first extracted and then concentrated from a relatively dry soil by the plants. This moisture is now concentrated even more by the jackrabbit’s body till they become fluids once again. These liquids, so highly concentrated in the jackrabbit body are the wellspring from which most desert predators depend. So when the desert sun goes down the plants once again rehydrate then as sun begins to rise they are fully recharged and they begin to go into their dryer state. This endless cycle of sunrise and sunset is something that predator and prey alike must adjust their mindset to.
When we look out across the great expanse of the desert landscape we can often see millions of creosote bushes. If we use one of our greatest attributes, that is our imagination, to further our understanding of the Jackrabbit in this land of creosote. One might imagine that we could look across this great expanse of the desert in such a way that we could see liquid water. In this way we would see that the desert landscape is dotted with a vast numbers of small liquid water sources. The overwhelming majority will be Jackrabbits. Then if we imagine a type of vision where we could see the glow of intelligence. We would see this vast desert landscape dotted with the glow of intelligence, overwhelmingly the Jackrabbits intelligence, as many of its predators like the snakes and the birds of prey would be too few and dimwitted to really show up. In light of all this we see that knowing the ways the jackrabbit is to know many things. In essence we must learn from what we see with our eyes and our imagination. When we take into account all the things that the jackrabbit is and all that it effects, it is curious to see how our culture deals with this species. It is characterized in a way that bears no resemblance to the life it lives. Nor do these characterizations lead to any deeper understanding of the environment that it lives in.
So it is, that this information, this viewpoint, is something you will be able to use when you walk the desert yourself. Then when you see a Jackrabbit, you see more than just a jackrabbit, rather you will see with your eyes and your imagination, the way of things.
By Carlos Gallinger