How Rabbits Hear: the long and short of bunny ears


bunny ears

Goooooood morning CHS supporters!

We hope you are all having a very safe and happy beginning to the fall season. If you are a wildlife fan you may be celebrating fall by watching for the prairie hares to start changing colour (let us know on Facebook if you’d like to see a blog entry on that phenomenon). The rest of us? Well, we’re still firmly in denial about the upcoming winter season… so today on the blog we’re looking at one of the coolest features bunnies have… some pretty awesome ears!

So, aside from being incredibly difficult to fit for earmuffs, what makes rabbit ears so special?

Rabbit ears have a unique shape. Rabbit ears are not only very long, they are also have a curve that turns them into satellite dishes on the bunny’s head. Why would a rabbit want this kind of shape? Well… rabbit ears are shaped like that for the same reason satellite dishes are – it helps to catch and amplify important signals. Rabbits are a prey species, so they need to be constantly monitoring for small sounds that may indicate a predator is near. They also need to be able to figure out exactly where that sound came from. The unique shape of the rabbit’s ears, and the rabbit’s ability to tilt, turn or move their ears, gives the rabbit the ability to pinpoint the location of the sound. Human ears are not as good at this activity (if you’ve ever heard someone else’s cell phone beep in a meeting and mistaken it for your own you have experienced one of the limitations of the human ear) but if you would like to try out hearing like a rabbit, there is an activity you can try.

Find a space and stand still in the middle. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds in the room. Now, cup your hands and place them behind your ears, pushing your ears forward gently and listen to how the sounds change. For the full impact of this activity, try this human ear vs. bunny ear again by having a friend move as quietly as they can around the room or by having a friend make noises at different points in the room. Chances are you can narrow down the direction of the sound much better when your hands are behind your ears!

Rabbit ears are signals! Just like cats, rabbits can use their ears to signal things to other rabbits. In fact, ears are an important part of body language for any species that can move its ears. Rabbit “ear language” is pretty complex, but a lot of it is similar to cats. Forward facing ears are generally considered happier, while ears that are turned backwards indicate a more annoyed rabbit (unless the rabbit is listening for a sound behind them). Rabbits may even “waggle” their ears at a favourite human to encourage the human to interact with them.

How can you best decipher this rabbit-ear semaphore? Observation! Spend some time watching rabbits closely and pay attention to what they do to their ears and/or body in response to different events. This is a great way to learn the body language of any species!

Rabbit ears are air conditioners! Rabbits cannot sweat. While people often say dogs and cats cannot sweat, both of these species actually do sweat through their paw pads – it’s just not enough to regulate their temperature. Rabbits, on the other hand, do not have paw pads like cats or dogs (rabbit feet are entirely covered in fur) so they cannot sweat at all. Rabbits also do not pant to cool off (in fact, should you spot your rabbit panting it is a medical emergency and you need to get your rabbit to a vet immediately).  So how is a rabbit to keep cool during hot days? We’re glad you asked!

Rabbits will use their ears as air conditioners in hot weather!  Well, actually they are more like radiators. During hot weather, a rabbit will increase the blood flow in their ears and will position their ears to catch any available breeze. Rabbit ears have very thin skin and thin fur, so heat can radiate away from the rabbit into the air. Unfortunately, this is not a terribly effective cooling mechanism, especially for indoor rabbits. Adding a cool ceramic tile for your rabbit to sit on, ensuring your rabbit has shade and moving your rabbit to a cooler area of the house are all very helpful to your bunny when the temperatures start to climb. Rabbits do not tolerate heat very well, so keeping an eye on the temperature is important to keep your bun hopping and happy.

So, reading those three facts above, you may now be wondering what about lop-eared rabbits?! Well, unfortunately for our lop eared friends, their ears are just not as effective at doing the above three things. This is one of the reasons you don’t see lop ears in most wild rabbits. Lop ears are a characteristic we have selectively bred into certain breeds of domestic rabbits because we like the way it looks. What does this mean for the owners of lop-ear rabbits? Well, it means you may need to be extra sensitive to changes in your rabbit’s ear position to read its cues correctly and you will also need to be extra careful about your rabbit’s exposure to heat.

There you have it! We think rabbit ears are pretty cool, and we hope you do too! Did we miss a cool rabbit ear fact? Share it with us on Facebook. Until next time everyone, keep hopping!