Study debunks fishy tale of how rabbits were first tamed

A pope’s proclamation that bunnies are fish, so can be eaten for Lent may never have happened


RABBIT TALE Rabbits came from the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France, but scientists are still debating how the animals became domesticated.

Olga1969/Wikicommons (CC BY 4.0)

Domesticated bunnies may need a new origin story.

Researchers thought they knew when rabbits were tamed. An often-cited tale holds that monks in Southern France domesticated rabbits after Pope Gregory issued a proclamation in A.D. 600 that fetal rabbits, called laurices, are fish and therefore can be eaten during Lent.

There’s just one problem: The story isn’t true. Not only does the legend offer little logic for rabbits being fish, but the proclamation itself is bogus, according to a new study of rabbit domestication.

“Pope Gregory never said anything about rabbits or laurices, and there is no evidence they were ever considered ‘fish,’” says Evan Irving-Pease, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford.

He and his colleagues discovered that scientists had mixed up Pope Gregory with St. Gregory of Tours. St. Gregory made a passing reference to a man named Roccolenus who in “the days of holy Lent … often ate young rabbits.” The misattribution somehow led to the story of rabbits’ domestication.

What’s more, DNA evidence can’t narrow rabbit domestication to that time period, Irving-Pease and colleagues report February 14 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Rabbit domestication wasn’t a single event, but a process with no distinct beginning, the researchers say. For similar reasons, scientists have found it difficult to pinpoint when and where other animals were first domesticated, too (SN: 7/8/17, p. 20).

Geneticist Leif Andersson of Uppsala University in Sweden agrees that genetic data can’t prove rabbit domestication happened around 600. But he says “it is also impossible to exclude that domestication of rabbits happened around that time period.”

Domestication practices were well known by then, Andersson says, and it’s possible that French monks or farmers in Southern France with a taste for rabbit meat made an effort to round up bunnies that eventually became the founding population for the domestic rabbit.

Ancient DNA from old rabbit bones may one day help settle the debate.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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