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Nuclear bunny? That's too big a leap

A rabbit without long ears? Supposedly living just outside the 19-mile (30-kilometer) exclusion zone surrounding Japan's radiation-stricken Fukushima nuclear site? Now there's a video that's made to go viral!

The YouTube clip has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it was uploaded two weeks ago, and it's sparking all sorts of speculation about the mutation risk to other living things due to the radiation leak. The problem is, you can't really tell anything about genetic risks from one mutant rabbit — particularly when the mutation has been seen lots of times before, without any connection to radiation exposure. There's this run-of-the-mill earless rabbit from Britain, for example. And this rabbit. And these rabbits. And ... well, we could pile on the cute bunny pictures all day. Rabbits have even been known to lose their ears due to overgrooming rather than genetic causes. So it's way too big a leap to blame this one on Fukushima's radiation leak, let alone suggest that humans might suffer a heightened incidence of birth defects.

If you really want to find out what's going on in Japan, check out "After the Wave," msnbc.com's special report about the aftermath of the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. The concerns about Fukushima's long-term legacy are serious enough without playing the cute-animal card. Although I have to admit the video is pretty cute.

Update for 3 p.m. ET: University of Miami biologist Dana Krempels, an expert on rabbits, provided this perspective in an email:

"There are many different reasons a rabbit may be born this way or acquire this characteristic early on, not least of which is a stressed mother rabbit who overgrooms her babies to the point of mutilation. This is the most common reason we see baby bunnies with missing ears or limbs. So while it's possible that the earless condition of this baby is congenital (i.e., bun was born with it), it's also possible that it was acquired after birth.

"I have to wonder whether there are any other bunnies in the group that have anomalies like that. I didn't see any. And that would make me very hesitant to cry 'Radiation!' just because one baby bunny is missing his external ear pinnae.

"I can't tell from the video whether the bunny has ear canals covered by the fur. If not, that would tell us that this isn't a result of a mother's overgrooming, but rather some kind of birth defect. Whether it's due to radiation or some other factor is not possible to say, since these types of malformations do occasionally occur in the absence of known mutagens.

"Sadly, only time will tell whether the radiation leaks are affecting the germline (i.e., the cells that will become eggs or sperm) or embryos of human and non-human animals in the irradiated regions of Japan. But a sample size of one bunny is far too small to make a positive conclusion."

More cute mutants:

This AOL Weird News report spends a lot of bandwidth on the mutant-bunny story, but for more of a reality check, consult Depleted Cranium and the Marketing Japan blog.

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