Rabbits have really short tails in comparison to other animals.
My dog generally wags its tail as a sign of happiness or excitement. So I know an animal’s tail is a way for them to communicate.
Do rabbits do the same? And why are their tails so short? Does it help them balance as a tail does for kangaroos and cats?
I know their tails aren’t like that of a monkey, which is used to help them grasp tree branches.
Surely, it can’t help them brush flies or insects away like a horse’s tail does.
Why Do Rabbits Have Short Tails?
There are a few reasons why a rabbit’s tail is short.
Firstly, a short tail that has a white tip helps a rabbit misdirect the attention of a predator and increases its chances of escaping.
This is because as the rabbit quickly zig-zags to get away from a wild animal, its white-tipped tail is camouflaged.
The predator’s focal point changes constantly, thus slowing them down.
Secondly, the short tail helps the rabbit balance as it moves in the opposite direction the bunny is zig-zagging in.
And thirdly, its tail helps it communicate with other rabbits and you.
What’s the Purpose of a Rabbit’s Short Tail?
There are four main reasons why the tail of rabbits – wild and domesticated – is short.
Escape From Predators
A rabbit is a prey animal. There are many predators that hunt, kill, and eat rabbits. Wild rabbits had to evolve to ensure the survival of their species.
This is part of the reason why a rabbit’s tail is short (and white).
A 2013 study by evolutionary biologist, Dirk Semmann, from the University of Göttingen, Germany, proved how rabbits use their tails to help them escape from predators.
A big part of this is misdirection.
In general, an animal draws attention to itself when it raises its tail while it flees from a predator.
This is called tail-flagging. It would then seem natural that the predator would more easily capture its prey when that prey tail-flags; however, the opposite is true.
The tails of ungulates, like deer, and rabbits (depending on the species) are tipped in white, while most other animals have brown tails.
The white-tail should be more conspicuous, but it actually works toward the rabbit’s advantage.
When a bunny is pursued by a wild animal, it hops or runs in quick, sharp turns, zig-zagging this way and then that way.
Semmann reasoned that the rabbit’s white-tail is a focal point. But only the tip is white.
So as the rabbit moves, it “hides” its tail from view because the rest of the tail is the same as the fur of the rest of the bunny.
The white tail or focal point isn’t constantly there.
But the predator keeps trying to focus on this white-tipped tail, while ignoring the rest of the rabbit’s body.
As the rabbit zigs and zags, the predator needs to constantly refocus to find the rabbit and chase it down.
The blinking tail that almost camouflages the rabbit gives it a better chance to escape.
The predator also slows down while trying to find the rabbit, winning the bunny precious extra seconds to get away.
Interestingly, Semmann proved his theory by asking 24 gamers to play a simple video game that simulated a rabbit running away from its predator.
There were two rabbits – one with a tail and one without a tail. The gamers had to guess which direction the rabbit was going.
More correct responses were recorded for the tailless rabbit than for the “with tail” bunny.
This proved the theory that the short white tail of a bunny throws the predator off its game. This is because tail-flagging hinders the predator’s ability to track the rabbit during the pursuit.
Thus, a white-tipped short tail helps increase a wild rabbit’s survival.
With the quick turns a rabbit makes, it needs a lot of balance to not fall over. The short tail provides the balance the fleeing bunny needs.
As a rabbit turns this away and that, its tail moves in the opposite direction. This balances out the movement.
Their tail, with the help of their powerful hind legs, also helps them turn faster because they are so balanced.
In comparison, a cat’s tail also helps them to balance.
A cat’s tail is long, so its movements are a lot more graceful and fluid. A rabbit’s tail is short, and this is why they move in a zig-zag way.
Another reason rabbits have a short tail is to communicate.
Yes, technically, I know all animals can use their tail – long or short – to communicate. However, how a rabbit communicates with their short tails is unique to this animal.
While out grazing, a rabbit will thump its hind leg in warning when it spots a predator.
This thump vibrates the ground, alerting the rabbit’s warren that danger is near and they need to get away or be careful.
A rabbit’s tail can communicate the same message as a thump does. When a rabbit flicks up its tail, the white tip is a good contrast to the rest of a bunny’s tail and coat.
This white is what gives the rabbit’s position away. Fellow rabbits will see this soundless command and know that danger is close.
Rabbits are altruistic animals – they will give themselves up to save their warren by thumping or flicking their tail.
A thump and tail-flick also alert a predator.
The thump tells them that the rabbit knows the predator is near and won’t go down without a fight.
The tail-flick or tail-flagging is used to misdirect the predator as the bunny zig-zags in an attempt to get away or draw the predator away from its warren.
There are other ways rabbits use their tails to communicate:
- When they are bored, they will constantly chase their tail.
- When a rabbit is irritated, it wags its tail to tell you that they are unhappy.
- An angry bunny will raise its tail or wag it.
- When a rabbit’s tail is stretched out behind them and they crawl on their front paws, then your bunny is either cautious or curious.
Also read: Why Do Rabbits Wiggle Their Tails?
Some Frequently Asked Questions about Rabbit Tail
Below are some FAQs about rabbit’s tails that the pet owners often have:
What is a rabbit’s tail called?
A rabbit’s tail is called a scut.
However, this isn’t a term that is often used these days even though the origin of scut dates back 400+ years.
Can you pull a rabbit’s tail off?
A rabbit will only lose its tail because of external influence. For example, a rabbit can bite another rabbit’s tail off or the bunny can bite off its own tail.
A person, if rough handling a rabbit, can also pull off the tail. Rabbits are very sensitive, and their tail is part of their spine, which is weak.
Why does my bunny wag its tail?
You may think a wagging/wiggling tail is a sign of happiness (like it is with dogs and other animals).
However, when a rabbit wags its tail it is in defiance.
Final Thoughts on a Rabbit’s Short Tail
A rabbit’s tail is an important part of its anatomy.
In the wild, the short tail that is usually tipped in white (or has a white underside) helps it escape from predators, and it warns the rabbit’s family that danger is near.
For domesticated or pet rabbits, they don’t need to use their tail to misdirect and escape.
Instead, like their wild counterparts, pet rabbits use their tail to communicate with a rabbit it is bonded with.
It also communicates with other animals and you.
Plus, the short tail helps your bunny balance as it binkies and zig-zags in play.
Other articles you may also like: