by Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com
Sauteur d’Alfort is French for Alfort’s jumpers, but rabbits bearing the name don’t hop at all. When most rabbits would jump away—pushing off the ground with both back legs to propel themselves forward—sauteur d’Alfort bunnies instead throw their backends up over their heads, balance on their front paws and scurry forward.
The French veterinarian who first witnessed this behavior in 1935 said the rabbits looked like human acrobats walking on their hands, reports Cristophe-Cécil Garnier for Slate.
Now, researchers have identified the specific genetic mutation that leads to the bunnies’ particular locomotion. The mutation causes a malfunction in the nerve cells that coordinate messages from around the body to other muscle groups, which is key to a balanced gait. The results were published in a paper on March 25 in the journal PLOS Genetics.
The study’s implications go beyond rabbits. Lead author and Uppsala University geneticist Leif Andersson tells Science News’ Erin Garcia de Jesús that it is “contributing to our basic knowledge about a very important function in humans and all animals — how we are able to move.”