The legendary jackalope, a creature fabled to possess the body of a jackrabbit and the antlers of an antelope or deer, holds a distinctive place as an American West cultural icon. The intriguing image of this hybrid creature has been emblazoned on various memorabilia, from postcards to shot glasses. While no such creature exists in reality, there is a kernel of truth behind the legend, according to Michael Branch, a literature and environment professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of “On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer” (Pegasus Books, 2022).
Branch reveals that the jackalope is a mythological creation but is grounded in horned rabbits affected by papillomavirus in nature. The rabbit papillomavirus can induce the growth of benign tumors, sometimes resembling antlers or horns, on rabbits’ faces or heads. This phenomenon is a result of the virus causing the growth of keratin, a protein similar to fingernails and hair. While these growths may not resemble the majestic antlers of the jackalope, they can appear black and asymmetrical, creating a rather grotesque appearance.
The history of the jackalope myth intersects with the discovery of the rabbit papillomavirus. In 1933, virologist Richard Shope identified the virus, subsequently named the Shope papillomavirus, which led to the growth of horn-like features on infected rabbits. This groundbreaking discovery challenged the prevailing belief that viruses could not cause cancer in mammals. Shope’s findings opened avenues of research into cancer-causing viruses and paved the way for the development of vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine that reduces the risk of cervical cancer.
The connection between horned rabbits and the creation of the jackalope legend remains speculative. The jackalope’s origins trace back to two teenage brothers in Wyoming, who are believed to have invented the concept independently. These brothers, who were hunters and amateur taxidermists, sold their first mounted jackalope in the 1930s. The timing of their creation coincided with Shope’s work on horned rabbits, which adds an intriguing layer to the story.
In essence, while the jackalope may remain a charming mythical creature, its ties to the rabbit papillomavirus and the advancements in medical research it inspired reflect the dynamic interplay between science, culture, and imagination in shaping enduring legends.