Like many unusual creatures and tales, there seems to always be some sliver of truth buried in these folkloric stories. The Jackalope is no different. As unreal as it seems, it has just a small dab of truth possibly sprinkled in the fabled creature story.
But first a brief history about the Jackalope.
The jackalope is a mythical animal of North American folklore described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. The word "jackalope" is a portmanteau of "jackrabbit" and "antelope", although the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, and the American antelope is not an antelope. Also, many jackalope taxidermy mounts, including the original, are actually made with deer antlers.
In the 1930s, Douglas Herrick and his brother, hunters with taxidermy skills, popularized the American jackalope by grafting deer antlers onto a jackrabbit carcass and selling the combination to a local hotel in Douglas, Wyoming. Thereafter, they made and sold many similar jackalopes to a retail outlet in South Dakota, and another taxidermist continues to manufacture the horned rabbits in the 21st century. Stuffed and mounted, jackalopes are found in many bars and other places in the United States; stores catering to tourists sell jackalope postcards and other paraphernalia, and commercial entities in America and elsewhere have used the word "jackalope" or a jackalope logo as part of their marketing strategies. The jackalope has appeared in published stories, poems, television shows, video games, and a low-budget mockumentary film. The Wyoming Legislature has considered bills to make the jackalope the state's official mythological creature.
The underlying legend of the jackalope, upon which the Wyoming taxidermists were building, may be related to similar stories in other cultures and other historical times. Researchers suggest that at least some of the tales of horned hares were inspired by sightings of rabbits infected with the Shope papilloma virus. It causes horn- and antler-like tumors to grow in various places on a rabbit's head and body.
Shope papilloma virus is also known as cottontail rabbit papilloma virus (CRPV). Shope papilloma virus, is a type I virus under the Baltimore scheme, possessing a nonsegmented dsDNA genome. In the 1930s, hunters in northwestern Iowa reported that the rabbits they shot had several horn protrusions on many parts of their bodies including their faces and necks. This lead to the investigation and discovery of the virus in 1933 by Richard E. Shope when he was experimenting with cancer research. Shope separated the virus from horny warts on cottontail rabbits, and made one of the first mammaliam tumor virus discoveries. The virus is also a possible source of myths about the jackalope, a rabbit with the horns of an antelope, and related cryptids such as the wolpertinger. Bavarian folklore tells of the wolpertinger, also called wolperdinger, a mythological hybrid animal allegedly inhabiting the alpine forests of Bavaria in Germany. The wolpertinger is made up of several different animal parts, including antlers.
Shope determined the “horn” protrusions were keratinous carcinomas due to the infection of CRPV. These are typically found on or near the animal’s head, and can become large enough to interfere with the host’s ability to eat, causing starvation. The virus was originally discovered to affect only cottontail rabbits. in the Midwestern U.S., but can also infect brush rabbits, jackrabbits, snowshoe hares, and house rabbits.
Shope’s research has led to the development of an SPV model and the first mammalian model of a cancer caused by a virus. He was able to isolate virus particles from tumors on captured animals and use these to inoculate domestic rabbits, which then developed similar tumors. The animal model of the Shope Papilloma Virus (SPV) has contributed to our understanding of fundamental mechanisms in neoplasia, or the formation of a new, abnormal growth of tissue. The virus was sequenced in 1984, showing substantial sequence similarities to HPV1a. It has been used as a model for human papillomaviruses both before and after this discovery. The most visible example of this role is the HPV vaccine, which was developed based on and incorporating research done using the virus as a model. Similarly, it has been used to investigate antiviral therapies.
So, this is probably what started the jackalope stories way back in the day. It probably started with someone just catching good enough glimpse of a rabbit suffering from Shope Papilloma Virus, to start telling people "I saw a rabbit with antlers". You know, rabbits at notoriously fast and a fleeting view of one with antlers, would probably have gotten your attention. It probably would have got you laughed at pretty fast as well, while telling about it. But I suspect that others started getting a quick view of the running rabbit and the stories became more accepted.
Regardless, of the origin of the jackalope, the legend has many twist and turns. I guess that is what has helped it to continue to be in our current society and to be a good source for humor.
The jackalope is subject to many outlandish and largely tongue-in-cheek claims embedded in tall tales about its habits. Jackalopes are said to be so dangerous that hunters are advised to wear stovepipes on their legs to keep from being gored. Stores in Douglas sell jackalope milk, but The New York Times questions its authenticity on grounds that milking a jackalope is known to be fraught with risk. One of the ways to catch a jackalope is to entice it with whiskey, the jackalope's beverage of choice.
The jackalope can imitate the human voice, according to legend. During the days of the Old West, when cowboys gathered by the campfires singing at night, jackalopes could be heard mimicking their voices or singing along, usually as a tenor. It is said that jackalopes, the rare Lepus antilocapra, only breed during lightning flashes and that their antlers make the act difficult despite the hare's reputation for fertility.
So, in the end the jackalope is much more than just a myth. It's part of our history, our entertainment, our culture and I'm guessing, our future.
This post by Thomas Marcum, Thomas is the founder/leader of the cryptozoology and paranormal research organization known as The Crypto Crew. Over 20 years experience with research and investigation of unexplained activity, working with video and websites. A trained wild land firefighter and a published photographer, and poet.
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