• Christopher Stephens, MSc

Why do Rabbits Have White Tails?

Study in Germany uses Humans to Model Confused Predators

Baffling! Adult Eastern Cottontail Displaying Characteristic White Tail

Many animals we see as we go about our day or head into a park or conservation area have noticeably distinctive coloration patterns. Many types of animal coloration are familiar, such as camouflage, or the warning coloration seen on bees and wasps. Other times, coloration exists to attract a mate or display territorial aggression.

But it is the the flashes of white on animal tails, especially familiar in rabbits, deer and even some birds that has caught the attention of both amateur naturalists and biologists. One might think the namesake flash of white from the tail of an Eastern Cottontail, a small rabbit native to Eastern North America and widely to the west, including British Columbia, where it is ubiquitous is intended to warn other rabbits.

Yet a curious scientist from Germany's University of Göttingen conducted research strongly suggesting that the flash of white on a cottontail or similar wild rabbit literally works by throwing predators such as dogs and foxes off track. Dirk Semmann conducted a study that involved setting up a video game where participents totalling 24 in number would have to track a virtual rabbit, both with and without a white tail. The participants had significantly reduced success in properly tracking the computer generated rabbit as it ran and cornered when a white tail was present in the simulation.

Rabbits like the Eastern cottontail photographed on Vancouver Island by the author gain an escape advantage when chased thanks to this fascinating quirk of natural selection. Semmann's findings were presented at the Behavior 2013 conference in Newcastle, UK, to show how rabbit rump patches increase survival rates when chased by a predator.

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