Scientists Now Know Why These French Rabbits Do Handstands When Shifting Quick

For over a century, animal experts have known that a certain variety of rabbits move solely on their front legs when trying to move quickly, but they have only recently learned why.

The Sauteur d’Alfort, also known as the Alfort jumping rabbit, has amazed scientists for more than a decade. In contrast to other rabbit varieties, the Sauteur d-Alfort has a unique acrobatic movement. When moving slowly, they walk short distances on all four limbs, but their hind legs hit the ground one after the other rather than at the same time. But the really remarkable thing happens when it has to move faster. Instead of hopping, it quickly lifts its hind legs above its head and begins moving on its front legs alone. Experiments carried out decades ago showed the sauteur couldn’t hop, but thanks to modern technology, scientists know exactly why.

Photo: Video Screengrab

Experiments carried out as early as 1943 showed that the inability to hop shown by the Sauteur d’Alfort rabbit was not a learned behavior, but the result of a recessive gene. Until recently, however, no one knew exactly what gene it was or how it prevented the animal from doing what all other rabbits think are perfectly natural.

“With modern technology, it is easy to go from a simple recessive disorder to finding the genes,” Leif Andersson, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, told Gizmodo. “The expectation was that something was wrong with the spinal cord because they didn’t coordinate their forelegs and hind legs.”

That expectation proved correct, as a study by scientists at Uppsala University showed that a distorted gene called RORB (RAR-related orphan receptor beta) made them unable to jump. RORB helps relay information and connects the left and right sides of the body – which is essential for coordinating limb movements – but the warped gene caused the rabbits to flex their hind legs, making jumping impossible.

“What happens when you move is these neurons are firing all the time and they coordinate muscle contractions and get feedback about the balance of the various limbs,” said Andersson. “This coordination of muscle contraction is not correct in these rabbits.”

Basically, the handstand movement of certain Sauteur d’Alfort rabbits isn’t the mutation itself, but a workaround for a debilitating genetic disorder that prevents them from making the legendary leap. Andersson added that the forelegged means of locomotion did not cause the rabbits any pain that he was aware of.

While solving the riddle that was the Sauteur d’Alfort movement doesn’t seem like a scientific breakthrough, experts say it is evidence of how far genetic research has advanced in recent years and could improve our understanding of it how vertebrates can walk.